The Rogation Days

This is an excerpt from The Genius of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion, by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), translated by Charles I. White, and published in 1884.

The bells of the village church strike up, and .be rustics immediately quit their various employments. The vine-dresser descends the hill, the husbandman hastens from the plain, the wood -cutter leaves the forest: the mothers, sallying from their huts, arrive with their children; and the young maidens relinquish their spinning wheels, their sheep, and the fountains, to attend the rural festival.

They assemble in the parish churchyard on the verdant graves of their forefathers. The only ecclesiastic who is to take part in the ceremony soon appears; this is some aged pastor known only by the appellation of the curé, and this venerable name, in which his own is lost, designates less the minister of the temple than the laborious father of his flock. He comes forth from his solitary house, which stands contiguous to the abode of the dead, over whose ashes he keeps watch. This pastor in his habitation is like an advanced guard on the frontier of life, to receive those who enter and those who depart from this kingdom of wo and grief. A well, some poplars, a vine climbing about his window, and a few pigeons, constitute all the wealth of this king of sacrifices.

The apostle of the gospel, vested simply in a surplice, assembles his flock before the principal entrance of the church, and delivers a discourse, which must certainly be very impressive, to judge from the tears of his audience. He frequently repeats the words, My children! my dearly-beloved children! and herein consists the whole secret of the eloquence of this rustic Chrysostom.

The exhortation ended, the assembly begins to move off, singing, “Ye shall go forth with pleasure, and ye shall be received with joy; the hills shall leap, and shall hear you with delight.” The standard of the saints, the antique banner of the days of chivalry, opens the procession of the villagers who follow their pastor pêlemêle. They pursue their course through lanes overshadowed with trees and deeply cut by the wheels of the rustic vehicles; they climb over high barriers formed by a single trunk of a tree; they proceed along a hedge of hawthorn, where the bee hums, where the bullfinch and the blackbird whistle. The budding trees display the promise of their fruit; all nature is a nosegay of flowers. The woods, the valleys, the rivers, the rocks, hear, in their turns, the hymns of the husbandmen. Astonished at these resounding canticles, the hosts of the green cornfields start forth, and at a convenient distance stop to witness the passage of this rural pageant.

At length the rustics return to their labor: religion designed not to make the day on which they implore- the Almighty to bleat the produce of the earth a day of idleness. With what confidence does the ploughman plunge his share into the soil, after addressing his supplications to Him who governs the spheres and who keeps in his treasuries the breezes of the south and the-fertilizing showers ! To finish well a day so piously begun, the old men of the village repair at night to converse with their pastor, who takes his evening meal under the poplars in his yard. The moon then sheds her last beams on this festival, which the Church has made to correspond with the return of the most pleasant of the months and the course of the most mysterious of the constellations. The people seem to hear the grain taking root in the earth and the plants growing and maturing. Amid the silence of the woods arise unknown voices, as from the choir of rural angels whose succor has been implored; and the plaintive and sweet notes of the nightingale salute the ears of the veterans, who are seated not far from the solitary tombs.


Featured: La bénédiction des blés en Artois (Blessing the Wheat in Artois), by Jules Breton; painted in 1857.


The Difference Between a Parable and an Allegory

Do you know the difference between a parable and an allegory? The answer is a simple one that deserves further development: A parable is an extended simile; an allegory is an extended metaphor.

Similes and metaphors are two different kinds of trope, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “a figure of speech which consists in the use of a word or phrase in a sense other than that which is proper to it.” Other tropes — our list is not exhaustive — are the rhetorical question, personification, and irony. The two tropes we are discussing here, simile and metaphor, either liken or identify one thing with another. The joining together of two concepts is what they have in common, while the different verbs — to liken or to identify — draw the contrast between them. Similes use the words like or as to join the different concepts; metaphors use some copulative (generally to be) whereby one concept is strictly identified with the other.

“Your eyes are like limpid pools” is a simile (an awkward one, alla Pepé Le Pew), as is the more serious “my Luve is like a red, red rose” (Robert Burns). A good poetic example of a metaphor is “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Keats; this rich passage, by the way, also employs a chiasmus and an ellipsis). Holy Scripture employs both tropes: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters” (Canticles 2:2) is a good Biblical example of a simile; and, from the same inspired love song comes this metaphor: “A cluster of cypress my love is to me, in the vineyards of Engaddi” (Canticles 1:13). Note in each example that the simile likens one thing to another, while the metaphor identifies them. This is the difference.

When a simile is extended, that is, when it is drawn out into a longer narrative, the result is a parable. This would explain why so many of Our Lord’s parables are introduced with a simple one-sentence simile, such as the opening verses of these seven “parables of the kingdom”:

  • The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field (Matt. 13:31).
  • The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven… (Matt. 13:33).
  • The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field (Matt. 13:44).
  • Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls (Matt. 13:45).
  • Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a net cast into the sea, and gathering together of all kind of fishes (Matt. 13:47).
  • The kingdom of heaven is like to an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard (Matt. 20:1).
  • Then shall the kingdom of heaven be like to ten virgins, who taking their lamps went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride. (Matt. 25:1).

When a metaphor is drawn out into a longer narrative, the result is an allegory. We had an allegory in a recent Sunday Gospel (for the Second Sunday after Easter, “Good Shepherd Sunday”):

At that time Jesus said to the Pharisees: I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd giveth his life for his sheep. But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming and leaveth the sheep and flieth: and the wolf catcheth and scattereth the sheep: and the hireling flieth, because he is a hireling, and he hath no care for the sheep. I am the good Shepherd: and I know Mine, and Mine know Me, as the Father knoweth Me, and I know the Father: and I lay down My life for My sheep. And other sheep I have that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd (John 10:11-16).

This is the Allegory of the Good Shepherd, which you will occasionally find called by this correct name, while some insist on imprecisely calling it a parable. But Saint John’s Gospel has no parables strictly so-called. The Beloved Disciple does not even use the word parable, but, instead calls the extended figures of speech in his Gospel by the word, paroimia (παροιμία), which is sometimes translated as “proverb.” True, paroimia may mean parable (as Msgr. Knox frustratingly translates it), but the concept is much broader and includes also allegory as well as proverb, aphorism, and hidden saying. Using the common rhetorical distinction between parable and allegory, this discourse on the Good Shepherd can only be called an allegory. The same Beloved Disciple also employs many allegories — pictorial ones — in his Apocalypse.

The Epistle that the Church joins to this beautiful Johannine allegory on Good Shepherd Sunday (1 Pet. 2:21-25) features a lovely simile that plays on the same figure of Jesus the Shepherd and us His lambs: “For you were as sheep going astray [sicut oves errantes]: but you are now converted to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” Had Saint Peter chosen to extend that particular simile, he would have given us what we could call the “Parable of the Sheep.”

Some readers may be familiar with the “allegorical sense” as one of the four senses of Holy Scripture. (These four senses are known as the quadriga, and there are many pages on our site dedicated to this important study.) According to Saint Thomas (ST, Ia, Q. 1, A. 10), the allegorical sense is present “so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law.” Thus, Saint Paul’s beautiful allegorical reading of Abraham’s two sons, Ismael and Isaac:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, and the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman, was born according to the flesh: but he of the free woman, was by promise. Which things are said by an allegory [ἀλληγορούμενα, from ἀλληγορέω, allēgoreō]. For these are the two testaments. The one from mount Sina, engendering unto bondage; which is Agar: For Sina is a mountain in Arabia, which hath affinity to that Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But that Jerusalem, which is above, is free: which is our mother (Gal. 4:22-26).

The two sons are the two testaments; they are not like or as the two testaments. Beginning with this clear, simple metaphor, Saint Paul builds out a narrative from which he draws important doctrinal lessons which are foundational for our life as Christians, concluding with the triumphant last verse (31) of that chapter: “So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free.”

Thus the literal or historical sense is transformed into doctrine that informs our faith and serves as the foundation of a Christian moral and spiritual life.

The inspired authors and Our Lord Himself employed both parables and allegories. The former is usually a bit simpler, the latter, deeper. Each is delightful and profitable for the Christian soul to ponder and meditate.


Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Logos, the Word-made-Man. It is fitting that He employs divine wordplay in human speech. As with the entire economy of the Incarnation, He does this “for us men and for our salvation.” With His grace, mediated to us through His Holy Mother, let us strive to profit from the words of the Word, who encourages and warns us on this very point in the parable with which He closes the Sermon on the Mount:

Every one therefore that heareth these my words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock. And every one that heareth these my words, and doth them not, shall be like a foolish man that built his house upon the sand, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof (Matthew 7:24-27).


Featured: Jesus among the Doctors, by Lodovico Mazzolino; painted in 1524.


Atomized No More: Plato’s Republic and Rediscovering Community

We are just roommates at this point, you and I and everyone around us in the Lonely West. Millions and millions of us live and move and have our being around each other, but that’s about it. We share little more than physical proximity. And even those grudging interactions are ebbing away as we DoorDash our food, Amazon our niceties, and livestream our holy Masses from the convenience of the couch.

The fundamental telos of Apocatastasis Institute is rediscovering community, and I’m thinking a lot about community these days and about social reform and I’ve written a lot about that. So here I am writing this and I’m doing it in an unusual location today. It’s not the typical room people find me in or the car they might see me typing away in. I’m in the skeleton of Big Al’s Toy Box, a hot rod engine factory late of Kent, Connecticut. Were you here you would see a poster for that business right behind me. Indeed I am sitting in Al’s old chair, Lord ‘ave mercy on him.

Yes, I’m thinking about the community that once was here and the business that once was here, and why those things fell apart, and how we use and overuse the word community. Like love and family and friendship, the word community has suffered all sorts of violence. We are increasingly coming to the realization that we’re all just roommates, that we don’t have anything in common. We don’t seem to have a country nor a culture anymore; we certainly don’t have an ethnos. Why that is is a discussion for another day. What is appropriate to ask is what is community and what holds a society together?

Plato was living and writing at a time like ours in some ways, and he’s writing at a time which in its own way is similar to ours. Plato was living at a time at a time increase where the Greek democracy – and it was a literal democracy in the sense of one man, one vote, at least for those men who owned property and could get to the town hall – became long in the tooth. You know, when your ruling class is killing Socrates it’s probably not a good sign of the competence of your leaders. Sure, don’t aldermen have a bad habit of exiling their most talented, and killing them when they can? I think of, yes, of Socrates in the time of Plato, and I think of Jesus run out of of Jerusalem and strung up on that cross, and I think of Mohammed run out of Mecca and Dante from Florence. A prophet is not known in his own land.

So here we have Plato’s home of Athens, and he’s looking around seeing incompetence in the leadership of this democracy. Soon enough Athens is going to be attacked and they’re going to have famines and coups and all sorts of things. Great Tribulation is coming and Plato knows it, but it’s still a ways off for your Joe Blow Greek.

We will revisit the exceptional aspects of Greek philosophy and Greek thinking down the line. Here, however, we can make note of something in that neighborhood, and that is the idea of “the individual” that’s going to be very necessary to understand the whole Greek way of looking at the world and how different that is from the rest of the world. We will revisit this importance anon. Just keep in mind that we’re seeing in Ancient Greece, an area of the world the size of New Jersey, a little pipsqueak piece of land, people who have a way of looking at life that’s going to influence the remainder of Western history, right until this very essay. To them belongs the idea of the individual, and that other aspect of Greek thinking, differentiation. We should also define “Socratic dialogue.” This is simply what we see in a lot of Plato’s writings and other philosophers of teaching with questions and teaching with conversation. In the case of The Republic using different characters to represent different problems.

When we begin The Republic, after now having lain out the situation in Athens, Plato settles upon the idea that to have a functioning republic, to have a functioning community, to use the modern lingo, you need “justice.” Thus begins a Socratic dialogue as to what justice means and as we see in other places such as The Phaedo and The Symposium. He uses the Socratic dialogue partially for comical reasons. Plato uses the other interlocutors of his books to kind of slap down their arguments. So, you know, if you were to put a Socratic dialogue in present times we would see prominent political figures or cultural figures or so-called celebrities often disagreeing with whomever Plato puts up as his hero, and we would see him slapping down their arguments. So, yes, there’s a comical aspect to this, or at least a humorous aspect to Plato.

Having established justice in his vision as being the mortar for a good polis, Plato then uses these other speakers to lay out his mind. Plato uses these people he disagrees with in the same way Thomas Aquinas will do well over 1500 years later. That is to put the opposing argument first, hopefully steelmanning it, and then shoot it down. So Plato has one of his speakers say what is justice, what is this mortar of society, and the first character will say that justice is paying your debts. Yes, one of the character says that and Plato says, “No, no, that can’t be true because of X Y and Z.” And the second one will say that helping your friends and harming your enemies is justice because of so-and-such, and Plato will say, “No, that can’t be justice because what if you’re mistaken and you think someone who is your enemy is your friend?” There is too much gray area here. Finally that last guy will say that justice is the stronger helping the weaker, and that is what gets us to what in fact is justice.

It’s important to understand the way Plato’s using “justice” is not like the three bits above. He’s using that word in the same sense we would use the word “virtue” or “morality,” so keep that in mind. For Plato virtue is the key to understanding his take on society and the problems of Athens and how to fix them. Potentially any human society with virtue will be functional. Remember, those morals are three, not the traditional four that we tend to have. Those four are prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. For Plato he’s just going to have the three, and these are wisdom, courage, and temperance. I’d like to revisit that before we get into Plato’s conception of a functioning republic, his idea of needing classes of people that have these virtues.

Now, if justice is the key to understanding Plato’s look on an healthy society, then we need to understand Greek philosophy and what it is about the Greek worldview which makes it so influential in subsequent Western history. The key to understanding this significance is that making distinctions is Philosophy 101. This is what put Greek thinking into a league of its own. Making distinctions comes from the Greeks, and this is what makes them different. What makes a cup a cup; what makes a car a car; what makes a bird a bird. There are many versions of these things, but what do they all have in common that makes them them? If you read Plato, and certainly Aristotle, they really obsess about what makes a thing a thing. This is going to be very important when we get to the Allegory Of The Cave which is famous from this book.

The Allegory is probably the most famous nugget of Plato’s that comes from The Republic. It’s probably the one idea of his that if you were to go out on the street that you would hear associated with Plato more than anything else. We all came across it in high school. We certainly all teach it in high school, those of us who never left high school in certain ways. This idea of what makes a thing a thing, this is going to plug in very shortly.

Before I get ahead of myself let’s recap. Plato says in The Republic that justice is having these internal virtues, or characteristics of the soul. For our purposes they are three, not the traditional four. For our man these are wisdom, courage, and temperance. Wisdom, courage, and temperance they are, and these are traditionally called the “pagan virtues” because you don’t need the Christian concept of Revelation which give you faith, hope, and love. Obviously these will go on and later history, especially with Aristotle, but for right now this is what we have.

So for Plato making distinctions, as he does, he sees also in the individual that that’s what makes his definition of justice different than the other three. Justice, meaning virtue, must reside within the individual; then it is to be mirrored to those he interacts with, and there is your society. If you look at the actual text of The Republic, the first three lame definitions of justice, they all have to do with these social arrangements. They are all external social arrangements, that are strong people in the society helping the weak, or owing debts – not just monetary debts, but owing debts of various sorts, you know – to another person, and justice is paying your debt, and finally giving to your friends and enemies what they deserve.

Plato says the weaknesses of these three definitions are because they don’t start with the individual. We also understand this as being a key to Greek philosophy, the individual. This will, of course, go on to be quite influential on Christian statecraft and philosophy later on. This idea is powerful, that justice flows from the internal life of man, flows out into the neighborhood he inhabits, and lifts the aggregate society. In a few weeks we’re going to have a conference at Apocatastasis Institute on the Memorial of St. Joseph The Worker, all day we will be hearing from teachers going on about society and economics and so forth, and for all their worldviews what they’ll be saying is fundamentally Platonic.

There is a mirroring here. There is a mirroring in Plato of the internal world to the external. The Ancient, like the Medieval mind, in that it is symphonic. Platonic thinking is symphonic. Everything works in harmony. This is very different from the modern mind where everything is isolated. There is this complete isolation of society. Fast-forward Modernity until today, and we see that all of life has been broken into these wretched rectangles, these cell phones. All of Western history has led to some dude with his face in the phone, but that’s a very modern type of isolation. For Plato, as for the Medieval, as much as the individual plays a prominent role, the individual never existed apart from society. It is only in Modernity, only since the Enlightenment, that you have this idea of the atomized autonomous individual, the individual that exists in this abstract world where he has no bonds to family, no bonds to anything unless he wishes to enter into a contract. (Whence you have your Social Contract Theory and your John Locke.)

What we need to know is that Plato understands the individual, and that justice (i.e. virtue) must come from the individual, and this is the source of a healthy polis. However, the individual is part of an organism. There is a reflection here. There’s a reflection here, and this is a great setup to the final point of these introductory considerations of The Republic.

We’re looking now at the Allegory Of The Cave, and the reflection I have is that the justice of the individual is seen first of all in the physical body of the individual. As we’re on the cusp of the Allegory, Plato sees everything almost like in a science experiment. Actually, here let’s make it easier. He sees it like a bottle of salad dressing. You have things separate out. The hard things go to the bottom, the light to the top. Whatever, the chopped up crud goes to the bottom, and the balsamic goes in the middle, and then your oil goes to the top; you have to shake it around to get your dressing.

So for reality, says Plato. At the highest part of existence is the Logos. This will become extremely important in Christian philosophy. Plato sees this as giving rise to the World Of Forms, the world of perfection from which everything is a reflection. Everything else kind of trickles down like a bottle of salad dressing to the heaviest most base, most materialistic aspects. Plato sees this in the body of the individual. The highest faculty of man is his reason, so that is highest physically in his body (i.e., his head). His source of reason is the closest, even if only by a few feet, to the skyly World Of Forms. You have for Plato your wisdom in your noggin’ – wisdom which is not just simply data, that’s another Modern distortion, but I’ll behave myself. Then after that you have courage; you have the heart and you have the lungs and the shoulders. Your courage is in your chest. Then you have the digestive and sexual organs, and they are the most base. They’re necessary, but they are those functions which are closest to the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Yes, the human being is like this little salad dressing bottle with the highest elements to the lowest.

Well, Plato then says obviously that’s all of reality. He says, you see, that this hierarchy of justice exists in bodies of men as well. I don’t mean individual physical bodies of men here, I mean groups of individuals. Right, you have the individual person with this hierarchy, Plato says, but you also see the same thing in society, the same division that you see certain people are broken up by these three virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance. You’re going to see certain types or classes of people that will emulate these same things.

Those who emulate wisdom are, for Plato, a very few number of rulers on this earth who have ever really tried to embrace that challenge. Marcus Aurelius might be one of the more famous ones; maybe St Louis IX could be another example; King David another. But in general few are those rulers who care about wisdom. Then you have the soldiers, those who emulate courage. The most base are the farmers and artisans. They are the most base, not because they’re bad but because there are the most of them, and because their concerns are the most animalistic. These ones have temperance.

These three classes of virtue must live in harmony if the republic is to be functioning properly. If any of you are like me you have different body parts that get inflamed from time to time. Maybe it’s your wrist or your knee that’s off, like I had very recently. When one part of the body isn’t a functioning or is demanding more attention than the rest it’s amazing how it saps your attention. I seem to be prone to this sort of inflammation. Over the winter I had this shoulder thing, and of all the things which go heywire on may, it was by far though most painful of these periodic annoyances that I have and, boy, like I say, when one part of the the body – and getting back to Plato, the body politic – is out of whack, it really does get your attention. It throws off the whole thing. Justice is having the three virtues in harmony, and when this exists in society, when each class carries out its own function, then harmony results. Before we finally get to the Allegory Of The Cave we will remember that one of the things which annoyed Plato in his day was that amateurs as he calls them, or as they’re translated into English, were getting involved with statecraft.

Plato very much had an almost 19th Century British idea of everyone – here’s an old fashioned phrase – minding their station. People should not get out of their lane, to use a later simile. Plato says the Philosopher-Kings need to govern. They are governors; they will not make good farmers. Farmers will not make good soldiers. The same goes with the other combinations. Keep to your lane, Plato says. Don’t have pretensions. This is a major area in these days of Liberalism where the present system diverges from Plato’s Republic. We have this idea that the individual can be anything in society, a governor, a soldier, an artisan.

The final thing I want to talk about is the Allegory Of The Cave. This is the most famous part of The Republic. Think about the parables of Jesus, these are teaching stories. Well there’s an allegory in our text called the Allegory Of The Sun, where the sun symbolizes goodness. The sun is Logos, the sun is Ultimate Reality. Very briefly the whole idea of the World Of Forms is where justice comes from, and where you get this this hierarchy of peoples as the salad dressing described above, of reality where things are separated by their their nobility and virtue. Plato says that this Bic is a pen and this dip pen is also a pen, and so is this gel pen; their designs are different, and yet we recognize them all as pens. There are a thousand different pens yet there is something they all have in common. What fascinated Plato is what makes these three things pens. I’m sitting on a swivel chair as I write this, and there’s a hammock over there, and there’s a beanbag in the corner, and upstairs there is a bar stool. In the World Of Forms, Plato says, there must be an ultimate pen of which all other pens are more or less poor reflections; there must be an ultimate chair from which all other seats are shadows.

So that’s the “sun” in the Allegory Of The Sun, it’s the Logos in the World Of Forms; it’s the ultimate woman, the ultimate man, the ultimate computer, the ultimate love, the ultimate hate, and so on. Everything else is just a reflection of this Logos, like waves rippling away from a thrown stone.

In the Allegory Of The Cave Plato tells us this very weird story where he says there is this underground cave. In it we see men who have been chained from birth to this wall. From their earliest years, from the breast and from the knee, they have been chained looking at a wall, looking at shadows of birds and pots and trees. The light comes from behind them and strange priests project the shadows which these poor bastards have to look at. They believe the shadows are reality; it’s all they know. They’ve never actually seen real birds and pots and trees. They see the shadow of the tree and they believe that is the thing itself. And in this story Plato says that one happy day someone comes into the cave and kills off those dudes in the robes making shadows, and he frees these slaves who have been brought up from the breast to see shadows as reality. He says, you know, “Come, follow me guys!” like in The Goonies or something, “Come, follow me!” He leads them up over the dead bodies of these guys with the sticks, and up and over and out of the cave they go. Finally the freed slaves see real birdies flying through the real sky, and real trees, actual trees with leaves and bark and such. But Plato says that people who have been so formed to see shadows as reality will kill their liberator. They will kill him up there and they will run back into the cave and they will find new people to hold up their placards and to keep the illusion going. It is much more comfortable back in the cave; it bewildered them to see the real things they only knew as shadows. They were being lied to. To see the real thing scared them, and so they ran back into their cave, back into their shadows.

At this point Plato invites us to ask that question in The Republic which is most difficult of all. Is justice and virtue and this way of seeing society available to everyone, or are there some people – and this is a hard question to ask, maybe the Ancients were more honest than we, or maybe more realistic than we; perhaps we are too idealistic – are there people who can’t handle reality? Are there people who need to be looking at the cave wall?

Plato is going to say absolutely yes, most people cannot handle virtue; most people cannot handle democracy. The vast majority of people are going to be slaves chained to the wall happily looking at the shadows. They’re not competent enough to grasp systems of government and worldview. This is a difficult question.

By the way, Plato’s not blowing the whistle telling us about this system of control. I hear this often enough from people, they mention that Plato’s alerting us, his readers, on the occult workings of the bad guys. No such thing! Plato says, “Get real, most people are fit to be slaves; they do not have the virtues necessary for the republic.” And guess what, besides idealistic Apocatastasis Institute, where are people deeply reading The Republic today? Places like Yale and Georgetown and Fordham and Chicago University, all the schools that produce the management class, all those places that spit out our philosopher-kings. Basically they agree with Plato. We can ask whether we agree with Plato. Is he being realistic or is he being cruel?

The final point of this Allegory Of The Cave, of course, is education. Now begins in The Republic a major meditation on education. This is kind of where my thoughts are going after having encountered this text.

Our author continues his idea of stratification, now breaking up the instruction of a hypothetical philosopher-king sort. He says from childhood until puberty there should be little, if any, formal instruction; from about 17 years old to 20 the youth should solely be occupied with military training with there being no time for study. This probably hits us moderns in the mouth more than anything as that’s the age in this culture when one is supposed to get their college education. Moving on, the 20s of a budding philosopher-king will be taken up with mathematics, the early 30s with dialogue and morality, from 35 to 50 years of age the individual will be engaged in public service, finally arriving at Athen’s Supreme Council after 50 years of age. How different this is from us, where one pretty much stops formal learning once they leave college, usually not returning to such exercises until retirement age.

Note that The Republic starts a tradition in Western literature of utopian thinking. When you read of Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on the state, or books like Thomas More’s Utopia, or Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, know that this discourse on the ideal state starts with The Republic. I was thinking today of any other culture which had something similar to a book like Plato’s Republic. The closest I could come would be the Mosaic Code in Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the holy Bible. But look at Deuteronomy in Leviticus, which is Moses laying out how the Old Testament Church, Israel, should function and be governed. It’s much more primitive than how Plato is thinking.

As a good Greek he is working in total abstraction. You could theoretically, as we can see now with the Neocons, apply the principles of The Republic in Iraq and Afghanistan and Ukraine right now because theoretically these ideas ought to work anywhere. Of course this is leaving out many cultural factors which explain the unbroken losing streak of Neoconservativism. The point is the people who start those wars are hopped up on The Republic, and they’re hopped up on abstraction, and that explains a lot of things we see in the news.

So what does The Republic teach us about rediscovering community? It offers us an alternative way to structure society. We were given a passing substitute for Christian society in the Enlightenment. Okay, the individual was no longer part of the drama of salvation inaugurated and lived perfectly in Christ and entered into via the holy Sacraments and life of grace. That was switched out with the pageant of a nation; liturgical participation was swapped for dutiful citizenship. It’s a little lame, but it obviously scratched an itch for about 500 years.

That is all gone now. The archons have sold out their nations in the last fifty years. In all my historical knowledge, I cannot recall when the ruling classes of an entire swath of the world have decided on cultural suicide en masse. In place of the citizen, which at least assumed reciprocal obligations as soon as rights, the “consumer” has been posited. And what a success it has been! In a mere forty odd years deracinated Western man has tripped over himself tearing his family apart, forgetting his religion, becoming the most selfish and self-absorbed blob in human history. In putting egotistical, commercial wants as the fundamental social relationship, Western man has forgotten his ethnos, his pride, his health, his God. There are six locations in holy Connecticut where I may buy sex change chemicals for my kid when I want to get back at my ex-wife in a Bar Association divorce court; two places will go all the way and do the chop-chop. This cannot go on.

The archons will hang themselves. If people aren’t dumb enough to take the bait of carefully fostered civil strife, this order will not be around for much longer. When these bastards hang themselves and destroy their systems of oppression, there will be much work to do. On their ruins we will build the republic, and we’ll have a better go of it if we internalize Plato’s Republic of virtue, not selfish consumerism, as we do.


John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideasand is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at its website.


Featured: Plato’s Cave, engraving by Jan Saenredam, after Cornelis van Haarlem; printed 1604.


An Ethic of Virtue

For the past twenty years, Alexandre Havard has been conducting a vast worldwide educational program aimed at managers. In line with the Aristotelian tradition, his aim is to base management and government on an ethic of virtue. He has written several books on the subject, the best-known of which is Virtuous Leadership. The originality of this good and traditional approach lies less in its content than in its form, style and pedagogy. For Havard, the value of virtue ethics lies in going beyond utilitarianism, rule-based moralism and behaviorist conditioning. It is about placing educational action in a perspective of personal development, but without falling into the cult of the ego. It is about stimulating the dynamism of the ego, letting it become enthusiastic about goals that transcend itself.

With this in mind, Alexandre Havard published a book in 2022 entitled, Seven Prophets and the Culture War. Its subtitle, Undoing the Philosophies of a World in Crisis. To take the measure of the crisis, of the challenge it presents, of what is at stake, is to feel called to authentically exist by making a choice that engages us in a titanic struggle, truly apocalyptic.

However important its external aspects may be (war, the economy, ecology, etc.), the crisis must first be measured from within. It has cultural roots, which lie in the influence of certain forms of destructive thinking. The way out of the crisis will be found in the influence of other thoughts, with constructive effects. Hence the two parts of the book, the first devoted to the three destructive prophets (Descartes, Rousseau, Nietzsche) and the second to the four builders (Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Solovyov). The result is a book of seven chapters, relatively short and easy to read, pleasant for some, very unpleasant, even intolerable, for others, who, having bought into destructive thinking, see in the worsening crisis a positive development in the direction of progress. They will not change their minds until they have returned to the Hobbesian state of nature, “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short.”

Let us look at how Havard presents his prophets. “We like to debate the ideas of this or that philosopher, but too often we leave out the study of his personality. What interests us is what the philosopher says, not what he is. This is a mistake, for behind ideas there is a heart” (p.11). Each chapter therefore presents a summary of the “prophet’s” life story, then paints a picture of his character, before setting out those of his ideas that, in the author’s opinion, have the most to do with the crisis, either to drive us into it or to extricate us from it.

The originality of Havard’s point of view lies perhaps less in the analysis of the destructive thinkers’ key ideas, than in their characterological study. In each of these “destroyers,” there is a monstrous hypertrophy of one faculty combined with a terrifying atrophy of the others. Descartes’ rationalism, Rousseau’s sentimentalism, Nietzsche’s voluntarism. Some will shrug their shoulders: summary categorizations! As if Descartes, the theorist of infinite freedom and “generosity,” were dry and unsentimental, the man who wrote a Treatise on the Passions, and had no will. But to understand a work, we need to identify its literary genre, its audience and its precise formal object. Here, the audience is cultivated, but not academic; the formal object is the influence of thinkers via the most common interpretation, which may well not be the most accurate, of their thoughts; the literary genre is as rhetorical and parenetic as it is speculative.

Even academically, too much effort to refine the presentation of a thought can end up rendering it incomprehensible in its essentials. The current anthropological crisis in the West is perhaps characterized less by mutilation than by the loss of synergy between the faculties. Once reason has withered, incapable of doing anything other than constructing a priori and experimenting according to certain protocols, any profound object is lost from sight; morality is nothing but convention, utilitarianism and constraint; the will exists only in the form of impotent moralism or brutal arbitrariness; affectivity, entirely detached from any love of truth and any serious good, founded in reason, in nature or in the Absolute, or in God, then becomes sentimentalism against a backdrop of self-satisfied good-conscience. As Diderot so aptly wrote to Rousseau, “I am well aware that, whatever you do, you will always have the testimony of your conscience on your side” (p.57). Placing Descartes first makes sense. The rational animal rots through reason. “Let us therefore work to think well, that is the principle of morality” (p.115). Thus says Pascal, at the end of the famous “thinking reed” fragment.

Alexandre Havard is Franco-Russian-Georgian. Perhaps that is why his prophetic builders include a Frenchman, a Dane and two Russians. Pascal is the first of the builders, because he rediscovered the lost synergy in what he called the “heart.”

This restoration of synergy is not possible without existential authenticity, which does not forget the singular by losing itself in abstraction, and which puts the word into action. This is how Kierkegaard is reconstructive.

The problem is authentic humanism. Man is constantly being destroyed by so-called humanists. The two Russian “prophets” take us right to the heart of the matter. Man wants to make himself God, and by aiming for the infinite, he falls into nothingness. This is the crisis. Dostoyevsky characterizes it with precision. Man’s absolute humanism sets in motion a descent into hell through his own annihilation. This absolute humanism cannot be overcome, surpassed or convinced without the re-establishment of reason in wisdom, which Solovyov calls unitotality, and the appeasement of the heart in theandria, the divine-humanity that is only real in Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

One understands nothing of Christianity and its prodigious historical resilience, often seemingly contrary to the laws of nature, if one does not note, quite simply, that a Christian is someone who adheres “to a very simple credo, which is this”: “there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more virile or more perfect than Christ” (p.172—Fyodor Dostoevky, letter to Natalia Fonvizina, Omsk 1854 ).

This is a book for times of crisis and of hope, for living this “apocalypse” with wisdom, boldness and magnanimity (p.218).


Henri Hude is the former director of the Ethics and Law Department at the Research Center of the Saint-Cyr Military Academy. He is the author of several important works of philosophy, among them, most recently, Philosophie de la guerre (Philosophy of War). These three articles appear through the kind courtesy of Pierre-Yves Rougeyron and Le cercle Aristote.


Denying the Spirit of the Age

It seems that in contemporary Christian thought, and particularly among Catholics, the spirit of the age is received without ever being filtered, as if it had always been there. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, many of those who profess to think take seriously what the spirit of the age whispers to us when it asserts that, in the West, we live in a perfectly neutral public space, which imposes nothing on us, so that, strictly speaking, the spirit of the age does not exist: it is just an empty place where everyone is equally entitled to speak. Secondly, there is a large faction of Christian intellectuals for whom criticism of the West is unacceptable, in the sense that such criticism is, in essence, immoral. These distant heirs of Christian democracy believe that, since liberal democracy is the absolute good, politically speaking, and the West is populated by liberal democracies, there is nothing to say about the spirit of the age other than to congratulate themselves on the fact that it is heading steadily in the right direction. Finally, there are all those—and there are many—for whom, Christianity having once strayed into the camp of “reaction,” there is no salvation except in instinctive reverence for “progress” and whatever presents itself as such, whether this automatic adherence to the past is a means of atoning for the past, or whether it reflects a genuine conviction that the Western world is moving in the right direction and that it is moving a little more in the right direction every day.

Thus, with the exception of the meagre cohort of “fundamentalists” for whom the present age has a pact with Hell, as has every age for the past two centuries, there is no one within the sphere of Christian intellectuals to actually question our times, to question the profound forces at work in them. This absence is all the more surprising given that, from the point of view of religion in the West, our era is not just any era—it is the moment when the Christian framework of our societies is collapsing almost everywhere, even though, until the 1960s, this framework was still relatively solid. Even if, in this field, which ultimately concerns the secrets of souls, we are not overly fond of statistics, it has to be said that whatever the variable we take into consideration—Sunday Mass attendance, for example, or the number of baptisms—we are witnessing in Western countries, and in those that have joined the West in recent decades, such as the countries of Eastern Europe, a spectacular decline which, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, has often taken the form of a collapse.

Such spiritual tectonic movements are rare in history. In fact, to find the equivalent, we would probably have to go back sixteen centuries, when, following the conversion of emperors, the populations of the Roman Empire became predominantly Christian in the space of a few decades. Thus, from a religious point of view, we cannot pretend that our time is a banal era in which nothing significant is happening. And yet, as in Edgar Poe’s short story, ” The Purloined Letter,” the evidence of the radical and massive de-Christianization of the West that is literally before our eyes is of little interest to theologians and other Christian thinkers. This general lack of interest can be explained by the reasons I mentioned above. For those who take seriously the discourse of our societies on their neutrality, their principled plurality, de-Christianization cannot be the “fault” of our Western world, by definition “benevolent” and “enlightened.”

The inability to think seriously about the link between de-Christianization and the spirit of the age is obviously not anecdotal. In particular, by failing to think seriously about this link, contemporary Western Christianity is reduced to considering that if there is massive de-Christianization in the West today, it is necessarily Christianity’s own fault: contemporary Western Christianity alone is responsible for de-Christianization. Within Catholicism, the enemy kins of conservatism and progressivism are in perfect agreement on this point. For the former, the crisis is simply the result of “going too far,” while for the latter, on the contrary, the crisis is the result of “not going far enough.” But, in all cases, the collapse is not because of the spirit of the age, which either does not exist, or is moving in the right direction—that of progress.

All these explanations, or pseudo-explanations, spontaneously agree to rule out another approach, which will be developed here. This approach postulates that the spirit of the age does indeed exist, that it differs essentially from that of earlier eras in the West, and that this spirit of the age is fundamentally hostile to Christianity. Put another way, this assertion is tantamount to declaring that a fundamental mutation has taken place in the recent history of the West—one that can also be described as a metaphysical mutation—which has tipped the West into a new spiritual universe where opposition to Christianity, far from being reduced to the anticlerical reactions of yesteryear to the “power” of the Church, constitutes a decisive element in the physis of the contemporary Westerner, so that he has no real choice as to whether or not to be anti-Christian: by nature, by his very nature, he is opposed to Christianity.

One can fight one’s nature. Some people do this remarkably well, which explains why so many genuine Christians remain in the West. Nevertheless, this struggle against one’s nature is exhausting, and requires a continuous expenditure of spiritual energy, so that one cannot go beyond the struggle against one’s nature. What is more, the decision to go against one’s nature, because of the courage and energy it requires, can only concern a minority. The vast majority prefer to let themselves go where their nature invites them, without giving further thought to the nature of their nature. This explains why Christianity in the West today is nothing more than a minority affair, with the question of the positive or negative nature of this minority status constituting another interrogation unrelated to the present reflection.

However, we cannot be satisfied with the assertion that, a few decades ago, the West underwent a metaphysical mutation that makes the current spirit of the age the natural enemy of Christianity. But we need to characterize this metaphysical mutation, to understand it in order to grasp it. When it comes to metaphysics, there is no other way forward than to question what lies at the very heart of all metaphysics—its relationship with the notion of truth. It is not just a question of the content of this notion, of what it tells us is “the true,” but also, and perhaps above all, of the status of this notion in the metaphysical galaxy that employs it. To say, for example, that the truthfulness of a thing is the sole basis of its value, the absence of which deprives the thing of all value, is to confer on the notion of truth a decisive status, since truth is, from then on, the origin of all other values. Contrary to the spontaneous belief of pure and probing souls, this determining status of truth is not found in all metaphysics. In fact, it is rare.

This intuitive perception of the notion of truth as a substantial determinant remains rooted in our representations, even our collective ones, more than we might think, since millennia-old spiritual reflexes cannot be erased in the space of a few decades. It does, however, complicate our search for the truth of the metaphysical moment we are living through, as it postulates that “modern” truth is to be found in exactly the same place as “ancient” truth—in other words, modern truth should structure all our modern values, stating what, from the point of view of Western modernity, is evil and what is good.

But this is not the case. Truth, in the modern sense of the term, is in no way located where it once was in the West. Let us take a few examples to help us understand. In the past, questions such as, “Is there a God and eternal life;” “If God is, what is the religion that expresses His Word;” or “If God is not, does Marxist-Leninist ideology provide the meaning and sense of the human adventure”—constituted the highest place of confrontation with truth, because our predecessors believed that the answer to these questions engaged human existence in its highest and most decisive form.
Today, such questions have, in practice, lost all importance. Few Westerners care whether or not there is a God, because deep down, this question seems of little importance to them. It is also revealing that, in an age confronted with the awakening of Islam and the challenges posed by this awakening, to the point of devoting numerous debates to it, not many people in the West are interested in the truth, or otherwise, of Islamic revelation, any more than they are in the truth, or otherwise, of the Christian faith. This is because the metaphysical site of truth has shifted. In earlier times, truth was an affirmative category: truth was stated as a universally valid assertion, always and forever. The consequence of this affirmative character was to separate the world and life into what was true and what was not, into truth and falsehood.

What has become of the modern order of truth? At first glance, one might think that truth has simply disappeared, so much so have the great theorists of post-modernity—Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in particular, as well as their epigones—shown reticence towards the notion of truth, judged in turn to be “excluding,” “intolerant,” but also “old-fashioned,” even “reactionary.” In fact, the discourse of Western modernity avoids the term “truth” wherever possible, preferring instead, for example, “diversity” or “singularity.”

And yet, truth has not disappeared. Indeed, no human discourse on the world and on life can dispense with the notion of truth, because every human discourse of this kind enunciates a word which, even quite unconsciously, is based on “what is”—in other words, on truth, in relation to what is not, error, illusion; and this despite the assertion that there is only illusion, that life is an illusion. The question, then, is less that of the absence of truth than that of its formalization—that is, of the new form that truth has assumed in our world.

What is this new form? As I said earlier, truth used to be affirmation. In other words, truth was not something naturally deduced from human existence, but something that had to be said, named and proclaimed. In this respect, Descartes’ famous statement, “cogito, ergo sum” was no different from the explicitly religious assertions of the traditional Christianity of his time. In our time, on the contrary, truth does not need to be said; it does not need to be named. And if it does not need to be named, it is because it is a process.

What does “being process” mean? It means that truth, according to Western modernity, is so embedded in us that it takes on the appearance of sensible evidence. Truth needs no enunciation, because it presents itself to us as the very expression of existence, the way in which the verb “to live” gives itself to us. Modern truth is not an enunciation which, by the very fact of its enunciatory status, rejects what is not that enunciation, thus organizing the world on the basis of the two fields of truth (even if invalid) and error (even if partial). It is a process, the very process of human consciousness, which cannot be other than this process.

It is sometimes said that Western modernity is reverting to a form of “paganism.” This is not true. In paganism, or at least Greco-Roman paganism, the task of consciousness was to conform to nature, because it recognized a sacred order in nature. Modern Western consciousness, on the other hand, sets itself no such task. Being itself is enough. This is because “Western being in the world” does not seem to it to be one of the possible historical forms of consciousness’s encounter with the world. “Western being-in-the-world” is the only effective and authentic form of being-in-the-world. It is the sensible evidence.

The confrontation between the “Western being in the world” and other forms of being in the world of consciousness, whether these are earlier in the history of human civilizations, or located elsewhere, in other geographical spaces, is, from the Western point of view, absolutely not a confrontation between “representations of the world.” It is a confrontation between the obvious and what stands outside the obvious, on the side of illusion, alienation and lies. It is precisely insofar as it is conceived as a “confrontation” that this representation is linked to truth. There is evidence, which is of the order of truth, and what stands outside evidence, which dissociates itself from this order. However, evidence is not thought of, not directly at any rate, as truth. It is sensible evidence—and that is all, since that is enough. Sensible evidence does not need truth, or so it believes. It does not need truth because it is undeniable. Being undeniable, means it does not need enunciation. We do not need to name it, to describe it, to circumscribe it, because it is there, and it is in nobody’s power to prevent it from being there. It is what is, the “put there” of the world.

Because it is the “laying there” of the world, sensible evidence does not operate according to the categories of “truth” and “error.” It obeys another dichotomy: that of wisdom and folly. The wise man is the one who recognizes the evidence of the senses and instinctively accepts it as the “there and then” of the world. On the other hand, he who does not receive this evidence is not, or is only subsidiarily, in error. He is mad, since it is the very nature of madness to refuse the obvious, by claiming, for example, that it is sunny when it is actually night. This perception of the refusal of the obvious as “madness” explains why contemporary Westerners, unlike their predecessors, do not see those who contest the sensible obvious as consciences in error, to be converted, but rather as alienated consciences, to be cured. For Westerners (I am referring, of course, to those who currently determine the rules of the game in the West), the world is not divided into those who are right and those who are wrong: it is divided into wisdom, i.e., health (the West and all those who associate themselves with it) and folly, i.e., madness (the rest of the world). As for the madman, wisdom teaches us that we must try to cure him, but that if he becomes dangerous in his madness, he must be locked up: cure or lock up, that is the alternative the modern West imposes on the rest of the world.

This representation of truth as a process, as nature, making sensible evidence the only reality, enables contemporary Westerners to construct a sense of history. If, from time immemorial, sensible evidence has indeed been the only reality in the world, it has nevertheless been necessary for human beings to become aware of the evidence. Our era is the first—within the spiritual perimeter of the West, of course—to recognize and acknowledge the obvious, and is thus the highest, most enlightened epoch in human history, and the path that has brought the human caravan to our time is what we usually call “progress.” Western “progressism” is thus nothing other than the cult of the obvious, and the effort to propagate this cult, and impose it, if necessary, on those who remain resistant.

It therefore takes a real spiritual detoxification to dare question the “obvious” nature of sensitive evidence. Today, such questioning is much more difficult than it was when religious faith was called into question in earlier eras. Back then, religious faith was explicitly presented as faith, i.e., as adherence to an invisible reality which, because it was invisible, did not impose itself on the senses. Faith contained within itself, in its essence, the possibility of doubt and rejection. In our system, on the other hand, evidence is unquestionable, unless, as we have seen, one is insane. The question of its possible non-obviousness cannot and must not be asked, and it is up to each individual to control his or her reason so that it does not clash with sensible evidence. Each individual is the guardian of his or her own sanity. But to do so, he must constantly monitor himself to ensure that he does not diverge, and that he continually adheres to the sensible evidence.

The contemporary Western world has thus invented a new kind of totalitarianism, a totalitarianism that can be said to be perfect because it is not based on an external constraint—and therefore perceptible to anyone with a modicum of lucidity—but on an internal constraint, with everyone in charge of their own control and zealously participating in this function from which they can only free themselves through death. Representing truth no longer as an assertion but as a process comes at a cost: one has to constantly work on oneself to conform to the process, one has to perform. “Performing” means eliminating, as phantasms, all suggestions of the mind evoking the possibility of a beyond to the sensible evidence; it also means nurturing a relationship of enamored obsession towards what presents itself to us as sensible evidence. It means organizing ourselves to continuously enjoy the sensible.

This is the other side of the coin. Modern ideology generally presents itself as a culture of freedom, offering the subject the freedom to “realize” himself as he sees fit. But this is just an ideology. If we question it as an ideology, i.e., as an artificial and/or self-interested representation of the world, we realize that the actual reality of our concrete existences is the very opposite of the expression of this divine freedom. The reality of our world is that every individual, far from being free, is constantly assigned to the task of grasping as much of the world as possible in order to appropriate it and derive what we call “jouissance“—a term that is far from confined to the realm of sexuality.

But to understand this reversal, we must first determine what is non-obvious, what is constructed, in the relationship to sensible evidence. This representation of truth presupposes, in the first place, the existence of two entities which, despite appearances, have nothing in common: firstly, the subject, and secondly, the rest of the world.

In this day and age, you are not a Westerner if you do not believe in the subject. It is all very well to assert that the subject is manipulated, alienated, trapped by the “system,” as some on the Left claim. But even and especially those who develop a so-called “critical” theory of the subject do not question the notion of the subject, which they take for granted. On the contrary—the end of history seems to them to coincide with the effective advent of a subject finally lucid and liberated from all conditionings, who can realize his freedom with full knowledge of the facts.

But what exactly is a subject? An individual consciousness, you might answer. And indeed, each of us instinctively feels like an individual consciousness. But it would be wrong to regard this feeling as universal. One need only have studied history to realize that there are entire civilizations for which the existence of an individual consciousness seems highly problematic, the primordial “I” seeing itself not as an autonomous individual but rather as a simple, humble part of a whole—whether that whole be the cosmos or the tribe.

The question, then, is rather why we instinctively believe in the subject, to the extent that, for a Westerner, it is possible to lose everything, but inconceivable to lose one’s status as subject. Let us also consider the place that modern morality increasingly accords to the notion of the subject’s “consent” or lack of “consent” in determining crimes and misdemeanors. Let us also consider the transcendent legal status of the subject, which is like the ridge beam of all our law.

Why do we believe in the subject in this way, without knowing that we believe in it, since for us the subject is? The answer lies in our relationship with sensory evidence, or, more precisely, in the way it forces us to conceive our relationship with the world. It leads us to perceive everything as a support object. Let us explain these two terms. Object: the universe is made up of nothing but inert objects, even when they have a biological existence on the surface. Unlike earlier ages of the world, which were fundamentally structured around the distinction between sacred and profane, the contemporary West proceeds to a radical equalization of the world, making it a mere collection of objects which are, to use an expression employed earlier, simply “put there,” existing only through this status of “put there,” and which can, at any moment, be extracted from the world, without damage to themselves or to the world.

But these objects are also supports. To be a “support” means that every object, in the world and in its “place there,” is oriented. It has always been oriented towards its use—whatever that use may be. The character of “the util,” to borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger, is the essence of the object, of every object. It is this orientation that determines the subject, who has a monopoly on detecting the utilitarian in the object, because the object is necessarily oriented towards him. The subject is thus the only one who, as a subject (it can of course be an object for another subject), distinguishes itself from all objects thanks to its ability to detect the orientation of each object.

Thus, the subject does not exist without objects, and without the representation of the world as a sum of indefinitely separable objects. If there is a subject in the West, or, more precisely, if we believe there is a subject, it is simply because the Westerner, for a long time already, but in our time with a radicalism and logical fanaticism infinitely superior to those of previous ages, sees in the world only objects oriented towards him. Because he sees the world in this way, as a vast space for the determination of supporting objects, the Westerner instinctively sees himself as a subject, since to be a subject is nothing other than to determine things in the direction of their use. As for making truth the process of adherence to sensible evidence, this is nothing other than naturalizing this representation of the world according to which each thing is only an object, and each object is only for the subject.

It is paradoxically deduced from these elements, since its official raison d’être is exactly the opposite: the subject is nothing in itself. It only comes into being through the object, and through the assignment it imposes on the object. The subject is this permanent work of assignment, and nothing else. To exist, in the contemporary West, is to be able to operate on things. It is 1) things, and 2) the ability to operate on them, that make the subject. Thus, there is no subject in itself that triumphantly emerges from history to assert its being, its power and its juridical, economic and moral value, and then begins to act on the world. The opposite is true. The subject is the product of the work of assigning things, which, by positing the thing as “the util,” generates the distinction between the oriented object and the subject that notes this orientation and takes technical, economic, psychological advantage of it.

We must now turn to the precise characteristics of this organized power over things, for at this stage of our reasoning, we are still behind the real singularity of our age. That the world is organized in such a way as to be oriented towards a subject who works on it, is something the West has been convinced of for several centuries now. The Promethean titanism of twentieth-century totalitarianism is precisely the product of this conviction. What changes in our time, however, is the nature of the orientation of things towards the subject. In the past, before the radical break of the second half of the twentieth century, the orientation of things, their use by the subject, responded to a will to power. This will to power could be technological, economic or existential in nature. Its aim was to increase the subject’s power through scientific and technical “progress,” the force of arms or the economy. Often, moreover, the subject was collective: it was a people, a civilization that projected its power through overt and explicit domination of the world of objects.

Since the great turning point of the second half of the twentieth century, the world’s orientation towards the subject has changed axis. This new axis is based on principles that are no longer governed by the will to power: the first of these principles is the notion of the singularity of the subject, which makes the aggregation of subjects impossible, so that the subject can only experience itself as a subject in a grasp of things forever distinct from that operated by other subjects. It is like a privatization, to use an economic analogy, of the notion of the subject, which of course needs to be analyzed more closely to assess its relationship with neo-liberalism, the dominant economic and political ideology of our time.

Secondly, the orientation of objects is no longer magnetized by the will to power. The modern, or post-modern, subject does not care about leaving his name in history, about expanding his being in the manner of an Alexander or a Napoleon. What he does want, however, is to derive jouissance, i.e., a sensitive interest, from each of the objects he grasps. It is a mistake, moreover, to say that the subject wants jouissance. In reality, he wants nothing conscious. Quite simply, he cannot apprehend the world in any other way than through interested jouissance. For him, the world does not exist outside this tactile grasp, just as many animals are radically incapable of understanding altruistic feelings like gratitude. The modern subject is nothing without self-interested jouissance. He cannot conceive of existence beyond this permanent search that applies to everything: sexuality, of course, but also “friendship,” “leisure,” “politics,” “culture.” All these categories are, for the modern subject, unthinkable if they do not filter through the skimmer of self-interested jouissance. In particular, we must not imagine that the modern subject could, at certain moments in his existence—for example, when he is no longer represented in society—rid himself of this obsession. For him, life is this obsession.

What remains to be understood is how jouissance is obtained. Naïve minds, shaped by our world, insist on believing that self-interested pleasure is a purely “natural” process that cannot be governed. Of course, this is not the case. Jouissance can be worked on, and not just sexually. The entire Western world is occupied by an immense amount of work that subjects impose on themselves, because this work is the necessary condition for maximizing jouissance. Paradoxically, our world, which prides itself on being free of constraints and subjection, which proclaims itself to be “free,” is governed entirely by a demand for performativity which, deep down, makes Westerners the least free of men and women. At all times, in all circumstances, we must perform in order to enjoy ourselves as much as possible. This general demand for performativity means, in particular, not to “waste time”—in the modern sense of the term, of course. Given the limited duration of a human existence, we need to choose the right opportunity at every moment, and make the most of it. This is why the ideology of free choice is so highly valued, in a world where, strictly speaking, no one freely chooses anything, because every subject is governed by the demand for performativity that imposes all his “choices” on him.

It would be a mistake, moreover, to believe in a free market-style confrontation of the respective performativities of one subject and another, giving everyone a fair chance in a game of egalitarian interactions between independent subjects. Each subject quickly understands that the surest way to force objects to move in the direction of self-interested jouissance is to control them. Firstly, because the control exercised over what is external to the subject induces, in itself, a form of jouissance. Secondly, and above all, because controlling objects is the guarantee that they will not rebel against the destination assigned to them. Everything one controls is, willy-nilly, subject to the will of the controller, the ultimate aim being to instill in the controlled the decision to go “freely” to the destination determined by the controller, to “freely” make the choice of subjection.

Control is the expression of power. Power is clearly distinct from the will to power. Power is the explicit and joyful expression of the expansion of one’s being. It certainly needs objects, but uses them as mere means and proof of its expansion. Power, on the other hand, never makes itself explicit. It never makes itself explicit because it has neither the will nor the time. It could not care less about the glory and trappings of power. Its task is constantly to control, to control better and more, and it never rises above this process of control. Thus, it is far less visible than power; it passes through subterrains, follows mysterious itineraries and revels in its invisibility, which facilitates the twists and turns of its action.

Power is the only serious passion of our time in the West. This is because power is the fundamental condition of self-interested jouissance. Every subject is obsessed, sometimes without being clearly aware of it, by the desire to constantly extend his control over things (including other subjects) and to exploit more effectively the things he controls. Power is an obsession that is obviously not limited to the political confrontation between parties. It is everywhere. It is in the couple, for example, even in the intimacy of the couple. It is also to be found in the supposedly “disinterested” expression of civil society; it is on the side of order and on the side of disorder, on the side of governments and on the side of non-governmental organizations. In this respect, it is revealing that in the feminist movement, power is the sole objective (provided, of course, that it is stripped of the verbiage of “equality” that serves as its veil). “Conquering power” and “being a woman of power” are symbols that resonate because everyone, men and women alike, knows deep down that power is the only significant issue in our world.

The passion for power determines a sociology: this sociology, however, is a little more complex than the far-left’s ritornello about the exclusive domination of capital, and financial capital in particular. Of course, financial capital is an important factor in the acquisition of power. But it is not alone. In this respect, it is rather strange that academics who regard Pierre Bourdieu’s work as their Bible or their Koran are so reluctant to draw concrete consequences from Bourdieu’s typology of capital, through the notion of “cultural capital” in particular. But perhaps they are so timid because an extensive conception of the notion of capital, including cultural capital, necessarily and mercilessly brings them back into the camp of the dominant class.

In this day and age, capital cannot be reduced to financial capital. It includes other forms of capital which, while not directly transformable into money, can easily be used to arrogate power. Let me cite two examples of these new forms of capital: cultural capital, already mentioned above, and symbolic capital. Cultural capital is the best-known: it is based on the possession of recognized but unshared knowledge, distinguishing those who know (technically or conceptually) from those who do not. Cultural capital, which is based on genuine knowledge, is the realm of the engineer and the university professor, and, more generally, of any effective and recognized specialist in a science. Symbolic capital, on the other hand, differs from cultural capital in that it is not based on scientific knowledge: it resides in the mastery of networks and signs, in tactile knowledge of what is in and what is out, or what is going to be tomorrow, in the possession of the right behavior and the right word in all circumstances of the social game, in the ability to make people believe that you belong to the ruling class, whose imposing figures you know and whose clichés and tics you know how to reproduce.

Despite appearances, symbolic capital has no claim to serious knowledge. It has no such claim because, for it, serious knowledge is of no importance. What counts, exclusively, is practical, non-conceptualized knowledge, which consists of feeling “instinctively” (this “instinct” having generally been worked on from an early age) what to do and say, who to know and who to ignore, so that the powerful of this world perceive them as one of their own, and the rest of society is convinced in turn.

To begin with, symbolic capital is linked to power, since it is nothing other than the greedy quest for power, based on the use of signs. Thus, it is only natural that, of all forms of capital, it should play an essential role in our age, since it is an integral part of the spirit of the age. As we have seen, the truth of our world is that we want power for power’s sake, if possible while pretending that we do not want it at all, that we are eminently disinterested. This is why, based on the possession of symbolic capital, a new type of bourgeoisie has emerged, one that can be described as hyper-bourgeois, because it systematizes and hypertrophies the pursuit of selfish interest that lies at the heart of the bourgeois spirit. The bourgeoisies of past centuries retained a form of restraint, which was like a retrospective tribute to the morals of the past: they considered, for example, that while interest could and should ruthlessly dominate in the world of “business,” the values of honor, duty and selflessness should continue to dominate, in the family, in social life, and wherever the icy waters of economic calculation did not prevail, to speak as Marx did.

The contemporary hyper-bourgeoisie, on the other hand, considers that the quest for selfish interest and power must reign absolutely everywhere in the social game. This is particularly true of the great symbolic languages of the human being, such as aesthetics and morality. Modern taste is not a question of taste: it is a calculated investment in the fame of a particular painter, which functions as a sign of recognition of, say, the open-mindedness, the sense of modernity, of the person who praises this fame. In this way, the work of art is not valued for its own sake, but for what it enables: the valorization of aesthetic judgment, understood as an unmistakable sign of belonging to the elite. Similarly, morality—or, more accurately, “ethics”, to use a term that is less frightening to our contemporaries—has never been so often evoked. But this is to draw, with a stroke of fire, the dividing line between consciences of what is right and what is wrong, i.e., between good and bad consciences and, from there, to distinguish between the good guys (the hyper-bourgeoisie) and the bad guys (all other classes, with a special mention for the middle and lower-middle classes). Another characteristic of modern ethics is that it is devoid of any practical consequences.

Through the use of the great symbolic languages, but also through the mastery of techniques that have nothing to do with scholarly knowledge but are organized around the conquest of power, the hyper-bourgeoisie has indeed become the dominant class of our time in the West. As such, it plays the decisive role in the production of ideologies that make jouissance and power the only true realities, the only sensible evidences and, consequently, the only horizon of our existences. The hyper-bourgeoisie is constantly working to convince the other classes of society that there is nothing beyond pleasure and power. It does this not just because it believes in it—although it fanatically adheres to the new gospel—but because this work of conviction is the basis of its own power over society. The more the hyper-bourgeoisie imposes the valorization of jouissance as a goal, of power as a means but also as an ideal form of jouissance, the more society effectively becomes a society governed by the obsession with jouissance and power, and the more the hyper-bourgeoisie sees itself confirmed in its function and enriches itself pecuniarily and/or symbolically, marginalizing older forms of capital, cultural capital in particular.

Like the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, the contemporary hyper-bourgeoisie unites a wide variety of groups, from Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial neo-capitalists to media hosts and gender or race activists. These groups ignore, envy and/or detest each other, but they all share the same solidarity of capital, which forces them, at vital moments, to unite without hesitation. Beyond appearances, they share the same representation of the world and the same interests. Their watchword and objective is identical: concern for the self, i.e., the conviction that every subject must have the ability to find himself, to emancipate himself and, in emancipating himself, to fulfill and realize himself.

In absolute terms, the search for the self, whatever name we give it, by dressing it up in the mantle of “self-fulfillment” and philosophical pseudo-“wisdom” for example, is an absurdity: as we have seen, the subject only exists through the things it appropriates to derive jouissance from them. The “self” does not exist in itself, and by virtue of the basic rules of logic, that which does not exist cannot be found. The subject is, literally, nothing; there are only souls engaged in a spiritual adventure in which they find salvation or condemnation. And yet, even if the self is a mere illusion, the quest for the self is not mere entertainment, in the Pascalian sense of the word, harmful to the soul but harmless to the world. A preoccupation with the self leads us to become ever more involved in the devastation of the world, whether material or spiritual, and to convince ourselves that there is nothing else in life other than this material or spiritual devastation, since “being oneself” simply means appropriating as much of the world as possible in order to derive as much jouissance as possible from it. The “self” is simply the addition of possessions, a compulsive hoarding of objects that we take and throw away almost immediately to turn to a new object and so on. The debilitated existence of the People, who hypertrophy this quest for possessive jouissance, is thus presented as the model of the good life and therefore the example to follow within our means.

I mentioned earlier that self-concern leads us to move from object to object in order to force them. One of the fundamental principles of sensible jouissance is its rapid exhaustion as soon as an identical object is constantly used as a support for jouissance, so that, in order to maintain an identical level of jouissance, we need to renew the stock of new objects available ever more quickly, in order to reproduce a jouissance that is also being exhausted ever more quickly, due to the phenomenon of satiation. For, paradoxically, the age of “self-care” that we are sold as an age of liberation and fulfillment is, for most people, first and foremost an age of widespread frustration. If, for the most part, the hyper-bourgeoisie, beyond the tiny stratum of the super-rich, manages to obtain remuneration levels that are more or less in line with the need for increasingly rapid rotation of objects, the other classes of society are proving incapable of keeping pace. They sink into the frustration that, in their own eyes, manifests their existential bankruptcy, i.e., their inability to reach the marvelous paradise of the subject. Their “self” is a constantly unhappy “self,” condemned to possess the object of their desire too rarely and too slowly. Far from being possession, their self is nothing but “frustration,” i.e., lack, negativity.

Despite this frustration, or rather because of it, a dynamic is set in motion. This dynamic seeks to persuade everyone that the remedy to existential frustration lies in the ever more intensive and extensive consumption of the world. To consume ever more objects, and if possible, the rarest and those once considered sacred, and at the same time to obtain ever more intense jouissance from the objects we consume—this is, this must be, in our world, the sole objective of human existence. And if, despite this consumption, frustration continues to prevail, the fault lies with the dominated classes, backward-looking and reactionary, incapable of intelligently managing the world of objects, unlike the hyper-bourgeoisie.

The goal of widespread, intensive consumption of the world is first and foremost ideological: today, in all Western countries, there is a whole literature whose sole function is to incite the “self” to be interested only in the “self,” and to conduct a continuous work of domestication of the “self” to teach it to care only about the moment, to consider the rest of the world as a mere assembly of consumer goods, and to constantly stimulate the need to consume goods, obviously indispensable to finally be “self,” and to experience the blossoming of “well-being,” and so on.

Over and above this ideology, an entire consumer economy has developed, i.e., an economic system in which consumption is the strategic variable. This strategic nature of “consumption” imposes a simple rule: the world’s consumption must constantly increase, in a mad rush, so that the frustration resulting from the consumption of goods dissolves into the desire for new goods to consume, which promise us ever greater jouissance, ever more exciting, than the previous consumption. Naturally, this promise is always, in the end, disappointed, and the system must produce, in a hysterical frenzy, ever more goods, ever faster, ever more intensely, in order to survive without being overwhelmed by the accumulation of frustrations. This mechanism has no end; or rather, it has an end, still distant, but dramatically approaching—the exhaustion of the world.

But our system, like all totalitarian systems, is not limited to the field of institutional economics. It also produces its own legal order, based on the fantasized existence of entirely free and autonomous legal subjects, whom no institution or higher principle should hinder, or simply impede, and who realize themselves exclusively through the accumulation of rights—the most powerful subject being the one who has succeeded in accumulating the maximum number of rights, in a logic in which the constant invention of new rights is essential to keep the subject occupied and give him reason to believe in his “autonomy” and “freedom.”

The field of morality, too, is entirely occupied by the logic of pleasurable consumption, through mechanisms such as the good conscience, acquired in full and forever by certain groups, and the bad conscience, which can paradoxically be the gateway to the good conscience, allowing one to enjoy one’s status as a beautiful soul and delicate conscience. And we could go on to cite many other areas of life in and out of society, i.e., in the intimate folds and recesses of the “subject,” where the mechanics of power, self-interested pleasure and obsessive consumption reign supreme, intertwined with each other.

At the end of this quick tour, perhaps we can better understand why the contemporary Western world (it being understood that one can be governed by the values of this world, while being geographically distant from it) is opposed to Christianity. This opposition is neither anecdotal nor circumstantial. It is not a rehash of the old anticlericalism. It is radical—in other words, it is in its very essence that the dominant system confronts the essence of Christianity. The economy of Western modernity is, in each of its terms, opposed to the founding principles of Christianity. This system is not obsessed with Christianity; it does not even think about it. Quite simply, in the course of its deployment, it “collides” in some way with the Christian truth that stands in its way, and needs to break this truth in order to complete its deployment, until it occupies the entirety of our world.

Let us examine the terms of the confrontation.

In the first place, and as I mentioned earlier, in our world there are and must be only the obvious and the certain. Believing in invisible truths, to use the classic definition of faith, is not an option. Why not? Because the idea of a reality that refuses to submit to the discipline of evidence and certainty instantly devalues the values of consumption and power. Something is, perhaps, and this something can only be reached through faith. In other words, such a reality introduces us to an entirely different metaphysical order than the consumption of the world—where, in our world, objects without mystery come naturally to us to be appropriated, faith commands us, on the contrary, to journey, without any certainty whatsoever, towards the invisible. Faith is consubstantial with what we call transcendence, and transcendence is unacceptable in our world, because all it takes—even the smallest possible space—is for it to reveal the alienation we impose on things, by revealing that the essence of things, or of certain things, cannot be reduced to their visibility. Our world tolerates just about everything, because in this “everything,” nothing bothers it, but it cannot tolerate transcendence. Muslims, who are unfortunately more vigilant on this point than Christians, have clearly sensed the stumbling block; that is why they resist so strongly on this metaphysical frontline, and why we should imitate them a little more in this area.

Secondly, for our modernity, there can be no soul, that is, no transcendent spiritual destiny doomed to salvation or loss. First, because time experienced as eternity does not exist; there are only instants that superimpose and fade away, so that, strictly speaking, the future, let alone eternity, does not exist. It is only an infinitely dilated present. Second, the soul has no place because there are only “selves,” that is, egoistic, closed instances, totalities that have no need of grace because they are, from the start, perfectly self-sufficient and therefore have no awareness of sin and no need of redemption. The self generates a world within itself, illusory but infinite, and exploring all the intricacies of the “self,” immersing oneself in it, probing its walls is the modern occupation par excellence, the contemporary form of entertainment, to use a Pascalian term.

Thirdly, as we have seen, the “self” does not exist as such. It only comes into existence through the continuous appropriation of things, and to do this, it needs to become power; in other words, control, concealment and manipulation. This power serves the principle of sterile accumulation, which can be likened to what the Gospels call “wealth.” The “rich man,” according to the Gospel, is the one who believes he can dispense with the Word, because in his granary he has accumulated and accumulates again and again the wheat he believes will keep him warm and plentiful for the rest of his life. It is hardly necessary to recall the many condemnations in the Gospels that accompany this figure of the rich man. Condemnations which, of course, do not happen by chance. The Good News is the opposite of the cult of accumulation: it teaches that it is, on the contrary, through the path of giving, which is both detachment and expenditure, that man succeeds in saving himself, abandoning the search for illusory worldly goods to enter the world of true goods, those that enrich insofar as they are given.

Thus, what is the Christian’s position in relation to the spirit of the world, the spirit of this world?

The prevailing response is that Christianity must adapt to our world, either because, from a Christian point of view, the values of this world are positive, or because these values are “neutral” and therefore do not stand in the way of the Christian message, or because, quite simply, this world is our world and we therefore have no choice but to act within it. But, as we have seen, this is, in any case, a pernicious illusion. There is nothing “natural” about the Western value system; it is neither “neutral” nor “positive.” It does not even offer the possibility of remaining external to it, so that we can retain our autonomy of judgment in relation to it. This value system is an arbitrary, unfolding process, not a static device. Why is it a process? Because it is never finished. The quest for power over things and people, the cult of consumerism, never has a limit, because it is always possible to go further in the exploitation of the world in the service of self-interested jouissance, just as a drug addict is never finished with drugs until he or she gets high. In the consumption of the world, there is a mechanism of jouissance and then frustration that demands ever greater consumption in order to postpone, as far as possible, the inevitable existential and economic collapse. The contemporary Western world no longer has the choice of escaping this mechanism, because it has become its lifeblood, guiding the direction of all its endeavors and justifying them. It needs to consume ever more intensely and consume ever more things to prove to itself that it is still what it says it is, a “liberation” and “progress,” and, by extension, to support itself.

Because it is a process, the Western value system wants to convert. It does not want to convert because it believes in a truth and wants to reveal it to the world. Such a concern is alien to its nature. It wants to convert because it sees itself as the logic of the obvious, and everyone must recognize the obviousness of the obvious if it is to escape any suspicion of being merely biased. This demand for conversion imposes continuous, implicit and, if necessary, violent pressure on the “I” of consciousness to conform, at least outwardly, to the new canons and gradually accept all their consequences. In this logic, there is never an armistice, never a pact, never a limit that can be set to the process; there can only be purely tactical retreats, before launching a new offensive.

How, then, is the Christian conscience to react when it is blind to the force and meaning of the process? The first thing to do is to give the process a few tokens, representing these tokens to ourselves as the concessions we need to make in order to be heard in our world. In this way, the “subject” is substituted for the soul, and the truth of Christianity becomes just another truth—a tradition, certainly venerable, but which must coexist with other equally venerable traditions, or simply an individual opinion. Putting things in the best possible light, Christians will be asked to be the chaplains of modernity, spreading a few drops of holy water of “spirituality” over our world parched by self-interest.

But that is not enough, and it never will be. A little while longer, and the notions of sin, and therefore of redemption, are abandoned in favor of rights, and the great enterprise of commodification of things, including and especially those held to be the most holy, is turned into a vector of progress and “emancipation.” Christianity is thus flattened out, stripped of transcendence and eschatology, to become nothing more than a club of right-thinking people, who are kind enough to provide the dominant hyper-bourgeoisie with the backing of their beautiful souls and their virtuous but empty discourses, which, in truth, are indistinguishable from the other virtuous but empty discourses that abound in our world.

We have all known, in our own circle, those Christians who define themselves, quite sincerely, as “humanists” or “progressives” (these are the terms they use to describe the movement of our modernity) and who become, themselves or in the next generation, Christian “humanists” or “progressives” before becoming, in the end, nothing more than “humanists” or “progressives.” For the process of being swallowed by contemporary Western ideology is infallible. From the moment we surrender to the prodromal signs of this ideology, from the moment we accept to reside on its metaphysical site, which we have apprehended on the basis of the contemplative notion of truth and its status, we must then follow this path which inevitably, eviscerates and sterilizes Christianity, replacing it with a wicker dummy which, in time, will fray and unravel ever further, until all that remains of Christian physis is its specter.

The temptation of submission, or even just “conciliation,” is therefore fatal to the Christian soul. But there are other ways to lose oneself in the face of Western modernity. Some people imagine, for example, that there is a political path for Christians in our world: not so much in the form of a Christian Democrat-style political party (we can see what has become of the Christian Democrats, who are undoubtedly still democrats, but less and less Christian), but rather through adherence to a political contestation of the existing order, under the banner of defending the “excluded,” the “oppressed,” the “migrants.” But this is to misunderstand the place of politics in our world. It has no autonomy from the metaphysical principles that effectively govern us. Even, and perhaps above all, the movements that present themselves as the most “radical,” the most “critical” are, in reality, nothing more than forces of adhesion to the great mechanics of our world. These movements, for example, advocate an ever broader, ever more intense “emancipation” of the individual subject, a liberation from the last remaining poles of opposition to the demand to consume “everything, right now,” without realizing that this “liberation” of the subject actually produces a confinement of the soul, reduced to the status of consuming subjects, obsessed by the claim to a formal freedom that is only the other face of effective enslavement to the world of commodities.

On the other hand, some Christians claim to be going back to the “good old days” of Christianity, campaigning for the defense of the Christian “identity” that has been damaged by Western modernity and the influx of migrants from other cultures. Apparently, they do not realize that this “good” time was not so “good” after all, since, as far as we know, Western modernity originated in countries of old Christianity. One day, Christian minds aware of the harmfulness of our world will have to ask themselves the question of the responsibility of the “old times” in the genesis of the new, and verify what, in the Christianity of yesteryear, already unconsciously authorized the drifts of which we are the culmination. What is more, defending Christian “identity” means fully embracing our world. Christian “identity” also means other “identities,” and basically reduces the religious phenomenon to a tribal dimension, with its fetishes and signs of belonging, in competition with the fetishes and signs of other tribes. But religion does not belong to the “words of the tribe,” to borrow a phrase from Stéphane Mallarmé. It is linked to a spiritual reality of a far greater magnitude, which is truth—truth for all time and for all. That is why the battle we are waging is a battle for truth, not a battle for identity.

The only fair and realistic position in the face of Western modernity is to be what you are. What does this mean? It means, first of all, that we must stop obsessing about modernity and defining ourselves in relation to it. To define ourselves in relation to it is to accept, even implicitly, its categories, and above all to see in it a fundamental metaphysical phenomenon—angelic or demonic, as the case may be. Nietzsche wrote that “you should never look into an abyss, because in the end, it is the abyss that is looking back at you.” Precisely, too many Christians contemplate Western modernity as if it were the abyss at the bottom of which human history finds its end. But our modernity deserves no such honor. It is, in fact, nothing more than a temptation, as Christianity has known many throughout its history.

Perceiving modernity as a simple, banal temptation leads us down familiar paths. For, throughout its historical development, Christianity has been confronted with temptation, whether Christians are dominant or dominated, whether the princes in power claim to be God or the Devil, the goddess of reason or faithful to idols, the Holy Church or atheism. If modernity is merely a temptation, as Christians have known so many times, then we can learn a lot from our past. Take, for example, the situation of Christians under the Roman Empire. Like us today, they were in the minority. Like us, they were subject to external injunctions to sacrifice to the gods of the Empire; in other words, to accept that they were just another religion at the service of the goddess Rome, her emperor, and her Stoic, Epicurean or Platonic reason. And yet, despite their small numbers, the Christians of that time were not impressed by the military and philosophical paraphernalia that surrounded them on all sides. They simply were what they were, and through the coherence between their faith and their deeds, they gradually founded an alternative model to the dominant values which, slowly but surely, undermined these values and brought them into disrepute.

These men and women thus proposed and opposed to the world a lifestyle, i.e., a coherent, and therefore aesthetic, structuring of being, thinking, willing and practicing. This radically new style, striking at all the weaknesses and contradictions of the dominant style, proved extraordinarily attractive, both metaphysically and morally, generating an aesthetic superior to what Rome was proposing, if we understand aesthetics as the signposting of truth.

Faced with a somewhat similar situation, we should take our inspiration from exactly this example. It is by proposing a style which, through its inner strength, devalues the style of Western modernity that we will succeed in overcoming it. Where the dominant style values possession, the obsession with consumption, the infinite egoism of self-concern, lies and manipulation, we must express, without useless affectation, but without weakness, a style that is immediately identifiable, both simple and frighteningly logical: instead of the dictatorship of the moment, to place our lives under the sun of eternity; to be sober and attentive to things and the world, rather than seeking to devour them or twist them to our advantage; to say what we think and mean what we say without any consideration of interest or power; to revere what deserves to be revered; believing in sin and redemption; knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no;” being faithful in good times and bad; treating our bodies as sanctuaries and not as commodities; facing evil and suffering without ever despairing; giving without regret and fighting without hating; teaching without moralizing.


Laurent Fourquet is a senior civil servant at the French Ministry of the Economy and has published four books: L’ère du Consommateur, (2011), Le moment M4 – Une réflexion sur la théorie de la valeur en Economie (2014), Le christianisme n’est pas un humanisme (2018), and Le raisin et les ronces (2020).


Featured: Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum, by Konstantin Flavitsky; painted in 1862.


The Practice of the Presence of God

Brother Lawrence was born Nicholas Herman around 1610 in Herimenil, Lorraine, a Duchy of France. His birth records were destroyed in a fire at his parish church during the Thirty Years War, a war in which he fought as a young soldier. It was also the war in which he sustained a near fatal injury to his sciatic nerve. The injury left him quite crippled and in chronic pain for the rest of his life.

The details of his early life are few and sketchy. However, we know he was educated both at home and by his parish priest whose first name was Lawrence and who was greatly admired by the young Nicolas. He was well read and, from an early age, drawn to a spiritual life of faith and love for God.

We also know that in the years between the abrupt end of his duties as a soldier and his entry into monastic life, he spent a period of time in the wilderness living like one of the early desert fathers. Also, prior to entering the monastery, and perhaps as preparation, he spent time as a civil servant. In his characteristic, self deprecating way, he mentions that he was a “footman who was clumsy and broke everything”.

At mid-life he entered a newly established monastery in Paris where he became the cook for the community which grew to over one hundred members. After fifteen years, his duties were shifted to the sandal repair shop but, even then, he often returned to the busy kitchen to help out.

In times as troubled as today, Brother Lawrence, discovered, then followed, a pure and uncomplicated way to walk continually in God’s presence. For some forty years, he lived and walked with Our Father at his side. Yet, through his own words, we learn that Brother Lawrence’s first ten years were full of severe trials and challenges.

A gentle man of joyful spirit, Brother Lawrence shunned attention and the limelight, knowing that outside distraction “spoils all”. It was not until after his death that a few of his letters were collected. Joseph de Beaufort, representative and counsel to the local archbishop, first published the letters in a small pamphlet. The following year, in a second publication which he titled, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’, de Beaufort included, as introductory material, the content of four conversations he had with Brother Lawrence.

In this small book, through letters and conversations, Brother Lawrence simply and beautifully explains how to continually walk with God – not from the head but from the heart. Brother Lawrence left the gift of a way of life available to anyone who seeks to know God’s peace and presence; that anyone, regardless of age or circumstance, can practice -anywhere, anytime. Brother Lawrence also left the gift of a direct approach to living in God’s presence that is as practical today as it was three hundred years ago.

Brother Lawrence died in 1691, having practiced God’s presence for over forty years. His quiet death was much like his monastic life where each day and each hour was a new beginning and a fresh commitment to love God with all his heart.

Introduction

At the time of de Beaufort’s interviews, Brother Lawrence was in his late fifties. Joseph de Beaufort later commented that the crippled brother, who was then in charge of the upkeep of over one hundred pairs of sandals, was “rough in appearance but gentle in grace.”

First Conversation

The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was upon the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favor in his conversion at the age of eighteen. During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul. This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since.

Brother Lawrence said he had been footman to M. Fieubert, the treasurer, and that he was a great awkward fellow who broke everything. He finally decided to enter a monastery thinking that he would there be made to smart for his awkwardness and the faults he would commit, and so he would sacrifice his life with its pleasures to God. But Brother Lawrence said that God had surprised him because he met with nothing but satisfaction in that state.

Brother Lawrence related that we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence by continually conversing with Him. It was a shameful thing to quit His conversation to think of trifles and fooleries. We should feed and nourish our souls with high notions of God which would yield us great joy in being devoted to Him.

He said we ought to quicken and enliven our faith. It was lamentable we had so little. Instead of taking faith for the rule of their conduct, men amused themselves with trivial devotions which changed daily. He said that faith was sufficient to bring us to a high degree of perfection. We ought to give ourselves up to God with regard both to things temporal and spiritual and seek our satisfaction only in the fulfilling of His will. Whether God led us by suffering or by consolation all would be equal to a soul truly resigned.

He said we need fidelity in those disruptions in the ebb and flow of prayer when God tries our love to Him. This was the time for a complete act of resignation, whereof one act alone could greatly promote our spiritual advancement.

He said that as far as the miseries and sins he heard of daily in the world, he was so far from wondering at them, that, on the contrary, he was surprised there were not more considering the malice sinners were capable of. For his part, he prayed for them. But knowing that God could remedy the mischief they did when He pleased, he gave himself no further trouble.

Brother Lawrence said to arrive at such resignation as God requires, we should carefully watch over all the passions that mingle in spiritual as well as temporal things. God would give light concerning those passions to those who truly desire to serve Him.

At the end of this first conversation Brother Lawrence said that if my purpose for the visit was to sincerely discuss how to serve God, I might come to him as often as I pleased and without any fear of being troublesome. If this was not the case, then I ought visit him no more.

Second Conversation

Brother Lawrence told me he had always been governed by love without selfish views. Since he resolved to make the love of God the end of all his actions, he had found reasons to be well satisfied with his method. He was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts.

He said he had been long troubled in mind from a certain belief that he should be damned. All the men in the world could not have persuaded him to the contrary. This trouble of mind had lasted four years during which time he had suffered much.

Finally he reasoned: I did not engage in a religious life but for the love of God. I have endeavored to act only for Him. Whatever becomes of me, whether I be lost or saved, I will always continue to act purely for the love of God. I shall have this good at least that till death I shall have done all that is in me to love Him. From that time on Brother Lawrence lived his life in perfect liberty and continual joy. He placed his sins between himself and God to tell Him that he did not deserve His favors yet God still continued to bestow them in abundance.

Brother Lawrence said that in order to form a habit of conversing with God continually and referring all we do to Him, we must at first apply to Him with some diligence. Then, after a little care, we would find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty. He expected after the pleasant days God had given him, he would have his turn of pain and suffering. Yet he was not uneasy about it. Knowing that, since he could do nothing of himself, God would not fail to give him the strength to bear them.

When an occasion of practicing some virtue was offered, he addressed himself to God saying, “Lord, I cannot do this unless Thou enablest me”. And then he received strength more than sufficient. When he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault saying to God, “I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself. It is You who must hinder my falling and mend what is amiss.” Then, after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

Brother Lawrence said we ought to act with God in the greatest simplicity, speaking to Him frankly and plainly, and imploring His assistance in our affairs just as they happen. God never failed to grant it, as Brother Lawrence had often experienced.

He said he had been lately sent into Burgundy to buy the provision of wine for the community. This was a very unwelcome task for him because he had no turn for business and because he was lame and could not go about the boat but by rolling himself over the casks. Yet he gave himself no uneasiness about it, nor about the purchase of the wine. He said to God, it was His business he was about, and that he afterwards found it very well performed. He mentioned that it had turned out the same way the year before when he was sent to Auvergne.

So, likewise, in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God and asking for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there. He was very pleased with the post he was now in. Yet he was as ready to quit that as the former, since he tried to please God by doing little things for the love of Him in any work he did. With him the set times of prayer were not different from other times. He retired to pray according to the directions of his superior, but he did not need such retirement nor ask for it because his greatest business did not divert him from God.

Since he knew his obligation to love God in all things, and as he endeavored to do so, he had no need of a director to advise him, but he greatly needed a confessor to absolve him. He said he was very sensible of his faults but not discouraged by them. He confessed them to God and made no excuses. Then, he peaceably resumed his usual practice of love and adoration.

In his trouble of mind, Brother Lawrence had consulted no one. Knowing only by the light of faith that God was present, he contented himself with directing all his actions to Him. He did everything with a desire to please Him and let what would come of it.

He said that useless thoughts spoil all – that the mischief began there. We ought to reject them as soon as we perceived their impertinence and return to our communion with God. In the beginning he had often passed his time appointed for prayer in rejecting wandering thoughts and falling right back into them. He could never regulate his devotion by certain methods as some do. Nevertheless, at first he had meditated for some time, but afterwards that went off in a manner that he could give no account of. Brother Lawrence emphasized that all bodily mortifications and other exercises are useless unless they serve to arrive at the union with God by love. He had well considered this. He found that the shortest way to go straight to God was by a continual exercise of love and doing all things for His sake.

He noted that there was a great difference between the acts of the intellect and those of the will. Acts of the intellect were comparatively of little value. Acts of the will were all important. Our only business was to love and delight ourselves in God. All possible kinds of mortification, if they were void of the love of God, could not efface a single sin. Instead, we ought, without anxiety, to expect the pardon of our sins from the blood of Jesus Christ only endeavoring to love Him with all our hearts. And he noted that God seemed to have granted the greatest favors to the greatest sinners as more signal monuments of His mercy.

Brother Lawrence said the greatest pains or pleasures of this world were not to be compared with what he had experienced of both kinds in a spiritual state. As a result he feared nothing, desiring only one thing of God – that he might not offend Him. He said he carried no guilt. “When I fail in my duty, I readily acknowledge it, saying, I am used to do so. I shall never do otherwise if I am left to myself. If I fail not, then I give God thanks acknowledging that it comes from Him.”

Third Conversation

Brother Lawrence told me that the foundation of the spiritual life in him had been a high notion and esteem of God in faith. When he had once well established his faith he had no other care but to reject every other thought so he might perform all his actions for the love of God. He said when sometimes he had not thought of God for a good while he did not disquiet himself for it. Having acknowledged his wretchedness to God, he simply returned to Him with so much the greater trust in Him.

He said the trust we put in God honors Him much and draws down great graces. Also, that it was impossible not only that God should deceive but that He should long let a soul suffer which is perfectly resigned to Him and resolved to endure everything for His sake.

Brother Lawrence often experienced the ready succors of Divine Grace. And because of his experience of grace, when he had business to do, he did not think of it beforehand. When it was time to do it, he found in God, as in a clear mirror, all that was fit for him to do. When outward business diverted him a little from the thought of God a fresh remembrance coming from God invested his soul and so inflamed and transported him that it was difficult for him to contain himself. He said he was more united to God in his outward employments than when he left them for devotion in retirement.

Brother Lawrence said that the worst that could happen to him was to lose that sense of God which he had enjoyed so long. Yet the goodness of God assured him He would not forsake him utterly and that He would give him strength to bear whatever evil He permitted to happen to him. Brother Lawrence, therefore, said he feared nothing. He had no occasion to consult with anybody about his state. In the past, when he had attempted to do it, he had always come away more perplexed. Since Brother Lawrence was ready to lay down his life for the love of God, he had no apprehension of danger.

He said that perfect resignation to God was a sure way to heaven, a way in which we have always sufficient light for our conduct. In the beginning of the spiritual life we ought to be faithful in doing our duty and denying ourselves and then, after a time, unspeakable pleasures followed. In difficulties we need only have recourse to Jesus Christ and beg His grace with which everything became easy.

Brother Lawrence said that many do not advance in the Christian progress because they stick in penances and particular exercises while they neglect the love of God which is the end. This appeared plainly by their works and was the reason why we see so little solid virtue. He said there needed neither art nor science for going to God, but only a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him and to love Him only.

Fourth Conversation

Brother Lawrence spoke with great openness of heart concerning his manner of going to God whereof some part is related already. He told me that all consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we are sensible does not lead to God. We might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him with freedom and in simplicity. We need only to recognize God intimately present with us and address ourselves to Him every moment. We need to beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving Him thanks when we have completed them.

In our conversation with God we should also engage in praising, adoring, and loving Him incessantly for His infinite goodness and perfection. Without being discouraged on account of our sins, we should pray for His grace with a perfect confidence, as relying upon the infinite merits of our Lord. Brother Lawrence said that God never failed offering us His grace at each action. It never failed except when Brother Lawrence’s thoughts had wandered from a sense of God’s Presence, or he forgot to ask His assistance. He said that God always gave us light in our doubts, when we had no other design but to please Him.

Our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works. Instead, it depended on doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own. He thought it was lamentable to see how many people mistook the means for the end, addicting themselves to certain works which they performed very imperfectly by reason of their human or selfish regards. The most excellent method he had found for going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men but purely for the love of God.

Brother Lawrence felt it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action, as by prayer in its season. His own prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but Divine Love. When the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might. Thus he passed his life in continual joy. Yet he hoped that God would give him somewhat to suffer when he grew stronger.

Brother Lawrence said we ought, once and for all, heartily put our whole trust in God, and make a total surrender of ourselves to Him, secure that He would not deceive us. We ought not weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed. We should not wonder if, in the beginning, we often failed in our endeavors, but that at last we should gain a habit which will naturally produce its acts in us without our care and to our exceeding great delight.

The whole substance of religion was faith, hope, and charity. In the practice of these we become united to the will of God. Everything else is indifferent and to be used as a means that we may arrive at our end and then be swallowed up by faith and charity. All things are possible to him who believes. They are less difficult to him who hopes. They are more easy to him who loves, and still more easy to him who perseveres in the practice of these three virtues. The end we ought to propose to ourselves is to become, in this life, the most perfect worshippers of God we can possibly be, and as we hope to be through all eternity.

We must, from time to time, honestly consider and thoroughly examine ourselves. We will, then, realize that we are worthy of great contempt. Brother Lawrence noted that when we directly confront ourselves in this manner, we will understand why we are subject to all kinds of misery and problems. We will realize why we are subject to changes and fluctuations in our health, mental outlook, and dispositions. And we will, indeed, recognize that we deserve all the pain and labors God sends to humble us.

After this, we should not wonder that troubles, temptations, oppositions, and contradictions happen to us from men. We ought, on the contrary, to submit ourselves to them and bear them as long as God pleases as things highly advantageous to us. The greater perfection a soul aspires after, the more dependent it is upon Divine Grace.

Being questioned by one of his own community (to whom he was obliged to open himself) by what means he had attained such an habitual sense of God, Brother Lawrence told him that, since his first coming to the monastery, he had considered God as the end of all his thoughts and desires, as the mark to which they should tend, and in which they should terminate.

He noted that in the beginning of his novitiate he spent the hours appointed for private prayer in thinking of God so as to convince his mind and impress deeply upon his heart the Divine existence. He did this by devout sentiments and submission to the lights of faith, rather than by studied reasonings and elaborate meditations. By this short and sure method he exercised himself in the knowledge and love of God, resolving to use his utmost endeavor to live in a continual sense of His Presence, and, if possible, never to forget Him more.

When he had thus, in prayer, filled his mind with great sentiments of that Infinite Being, he went to his work appointed in the kitchen (for he was then cook for the community). There having first considered severally the things his office required, and when and how each thing was to be done, he spent all the intervals of his time, both before and after his work, in prayer.

When he began his business, he said to God with a filial trust in Him, “O my God, since Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance. Receive all my works, and possess all my affections.” As he proceeded in his work, he continued his familiar conversation with his Maker, imploring His grace, and offering to Him all his actions.

When he had finished, he examined himself how he had discharged his duty. If he found well, he returned thanks to God. If otherwise, he asked pardon and, without being discouraged, he set his mind right again. He then continued his exercise of the presence of God as if he had never deviated from it. “Thus,” said he, “by rising after my falls, and by frequently renewed acts of faith and love, I am come to a state wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of God as it was at first to accustom myself to it.”

As Brother Lawrence had found such an advantage in walking in the presence of God, it was natural for him to recommend it earnestly to others. More strikingly, his example was a stronger inducement than any arguments he could propose. His very countenance was edifying with such a sweet and calm devotion appearing that he could not but affect the beholders.

It was observed, that in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit. “The time of business,” said he, “does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.”

Letters

Introduction

Brother Lawrence’s letters are the very heart and soul of what is titled ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’. All of these letters were written during the last ten years of his life. Many of them were to long-time friends, a Carmelite sister and a sister at a nearby convent. One or both of these friends were from his native village, perhaps relatives.

The first letter was probably written to the prioress of one of these convents. The second letter was written to Brother Lawrence’s own spiritual adviser. Note that the fourth letter is written in the third person where Brother Lawrence describes his own experience. The letters follow the tradition of substituting M— for specific names.

First Letter

You so earnestly desire that I describe the method by which I arrived at that habitual sense of God’s presence, which our merciful Lord has been pleased to grant me. I am complying with your request with my request that you show my letter to no one. If I knew that you would let it be seen, all the desire I have for your spiritual progress would not be enough to make me comply.

The account I can give you is: Having found in many books different methods of going to God and divers practices of the spiritual life, I thought this would serve rather to puzzle me than facilitate what I sought after, which was nothing but how to become wholly God’s. This made me resolve to give the all for the All. After having given myself wholly to God, to make all the satisfaction I could for my sins, I renounced, for the love of Him, everything that was not He, and I began to live as if there was none but He and I in the world.

Sometimes I considered myself before Him as a poor criminal at the feet of his judge. At other times I beheld Him in my heart as my Father, as my God. I worshipped Him the oftenest I could, keeping my mind in His holy presence and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him. I made this my business, not only at the appointed times of prayer but all the time; every hour, every minute, even in the height of my work, I drove from my mind everything that interrupted my thoughts of God.

I found no small pain in this exercise. Yet I continued it, notwithstanding all the difficulties that occurred. And I tried not to trouble or disquiet myself when my mind wandered. Such has been my common practice ever since I entered religious life. Though I have done it very imperfectly, I have found great advantages by it. These, I well know, are to be imputed to the mercy and goodness of God because we can do nothing without Him; and I still less than any.

When we are faithful to keep ourselves in His holy presence, and set Him always before us, this hinders our offending Him, and doing anything that may displease Him. It also begets in us a holy freedom, and, if I may so speak, a familiarity with God, where, when we ask, He supplies the graces we need. Over time, by often repeating these acts, they become habitual, and the presence of God becomes quite natural to us.

Please give Him thanks with me, for His great goodness towards me, which I can never sufficiently express, and for the many favors He has done to so miserable a sinner as I am. May all things praise Him. Amen.

Second Letter

Not finding my manner of life described in books, although I have no problem with that, yet, for reassurance, I would appreciate your thoughts about it.

In conversation some days ago a devout person told me the spiritual life was a life of grace, which begins with servile fear, which is increased by hope of eternal life, and which is consummated by pure love; that each of these states had its different steps, by which one arrives at last at that blessed consummation.

I have not followed these methods at all. On the contrary, I instinctively felt they would discourage me. Instead, at my entrance into religious life, I took a resolution to give myself up to God as the best satisfaction I could make for my sins and, for the love of Him, to renounce all besides.

For the first years, I commonly employed myself during the time set apart for devotion with thoughts of death, judgment, hell, heaven, and my sins. Thus I continued some years applying my mind carefully the rest of the day, and even in the midst of my work, to the presence of God, whom I considered always as with me, often as in my heart.

At length I began to do the same thing during my set time of prayer, which gave me joy and consolation. This practice produced in me so high an esteem for God that faith alone was enough to assure me.

Such was my beginning. Yet I must tell you that for the first ten years I suffered a great deal. During this time I fell often, and rose again presently. It seemed to me that all creatures, reason, and God Himself were against me and faith alone for me.

The apprehension that I was not devoted to God as I wished to be, my past sins always present to my mind, and the great unmerited favors which God did me, were the source of my sufferings and feelings of unworthiness. I was sometimes troubled with thoughts that to believe I had received such favors was an effect of my imagination, which pretended to be so soon where others arrived with great difficulty. At other times I believed that it was a willful delusion and that there really was no hope for me.

Finally, I considered the prospect of spending the rest of my days in these troubles. I discovered this did not diminish the trust I had in God at all. In fact, it only served to increase my faith. It then seemed that, all at once, I found myself changed. My soul, which, until that time was in trouble, felt a profound inward peace, as if she were in her center and place of rest.

Ever since that time I walk before God simply, in faith, with humility, and with love. I apply myself diligently to do nothing and think nothing which may displease Him. I hope that when I have done what I can, He will do with me what He pleases.

As for what passes in me at present, I cannot express it. I have no pain or difficulty about my state because I have no will but that of God. I endeavor to accomplish His will in all things. And I am so resigned that I would not take up a straw from the ground against His order or from any motive but that of pure love for Him.

I have ceased all forms of devotion and set prayers except those to which my state requires. I make it my priority to persevere in His holy presence, wherein I maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God. Or, to put it another way, it is an habitual, silent, and private conversation of the soul with God. This gives me much joy and contentment. In short, I am sure, beyond all doubt, that my soul has been with God above these past thirty years. I pass over many things that I may not be tedious to you.

Yet, I think it is appropriate to tell you how I perceive myself before God, whom I behold as my King. I consider myself as the most wretched of men. I am full of faults, flaws, and weaknesses, and have committed all sorts of crimes against his King. Touched with a sensible regret I confess all my wickedness to Him. I ask His forgiveness. I abandon myself in His hands that He may do what He pleases with me.

My King is full of mercy and goodness. Far from chastising me, He embraces me with love. He makes me eat at His table. He serves me with His own hands and gives me the key to His treasures. He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a thousand and a thousand ways. And He treats me in all respects as His favorite. In this way I consider myself continually in His holy presence.

My most usual method is this simple attention, an affectionate regard for God to whom I find myself often attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at the mother’s breast. To choose an expression, I would call this state the bosom of God, for the inexpressible sweetness which I taste and experience there. If, at any time, my thoughts wander from it from necessity or infirmity, I am presently recalled by inward emotions so charming and delicious that I cannot find words to describe them. Please reflect on my great wretchedness, of which you are fully informed, rather than on the great favors God does one as unworthy and ungrateful as I am.

As for my set hours of prayer, they are simply a continuation of the same exercise. Sometimes I consider myself as a stone before a carver, whereof He is to make a statue. Presenting myself thus before God, I desire Him to make His perfect image in my soul and render me entirely like Himself. At other times, when I apply myself to prayer, I feel all my spirit lifted up without any care or effort on my part. This often continues as if it was suspended yet firmly fixed in God like a center or place of rest.

I know that some charge this state with inactivity, delusion, and self-love. I confess that it is a holy inactivity. And it would be a happy self-love if the soul, in that state, were capable of it. But while the soul is in this repose, she cannot be disturbed by the kinds of things to which she was formerly accustomed. The things that the soul used to depend on would now hinder rather than assist her.

Yet, I cannot see how this could be called imagination or delusion because the soul which enjoys God in this way wants nothing but Him. If this is delusion, then only God can remedy it. Let Him do what He pleases with me. I desire only Him and to be wholly devoted to Him.

Please send me your opinion as I greatly value and have a singular esteem for your reverence, and am yours.

Third Letter

We have a God who is infinitely gracious and knows all our wants. I always thought that He would reduce you to extremity. He will come in His own time, and when you least expect it. Hope in Him more than ever. Thank Him with me for the favors He does you, particularly for the fortitude and patience which He gives you in your afflictions. It is a plain mark of the care He takes of you. Comfort yourself with Him, and give thanks for all.

I admire also the fortitude and bravery of M—. God has given him a good disposition and a good will; but he is still a little worldly and somewhat immature. I hope the affliction God has sent him will help him do some reflection and inner searching and that it may prove to be a wholesome remedy to him. It is a chance for him to put all his trust in God who accompanies him everywhere. Let him think of Him as much as he can, especially in time of great danger.

A little lifting up of the heart and a remembrance of God suffices. One act of inward worship, though upon a march with sword in hand, are prayers which, however short, are nevertheless very acceptable to God. And, far from lessening a soldier’s courage in occasions of danger, they actually serve to fortify it. Let him think of God as often as possible. Let him accustom himself, by degrees, to this small but holy exercise. No one sees it, and nothing is easier than to repeat these little internal adorations all through the day.

Please recommend to him that he think of God the most he can in this way. It is very fit and most necessary for a soldier, who is daily faced with danger to his life, and often to his very salvation.

I hope that God will assist him and all the family, to whom I present my service, being theirs and yours.

Fourth Letter

I am taking this opportunity to tell you about the sentiments of one of our society concerning the admirable effects and continual assistance he receives from the presence of God. May we both profit by them.

For the past forty years his continual care has been to be always with God; and to do nothing, say nothing, and think nothing which may displease Him. He does this without any view or motive except pure love of Him and because God deserves infinitely more.

He is now so accustomed to that Divine presence that he receives from it continual comfort and peace. For about thirty years his soul has been filled with joy and delight so continual, and sometimes so great, that he is forced to find ways to hide their appearing outwardly to others who may not understand.

If sometimes he becomes a little distracted from that Divine presence, God gently recalls Himself by a stirring in his soul. This often happens when he is most engaged in his outward chores and tasks. He answers with exact fidelity to these inward drawings, either by an elevation of his heart towards God, or by a meek and fond regard to Him, or by such words as love forms upon these occasions. For instance, he may say, “My God, here I am all devoted to You,” or “Lord, make me according to Your heart.”

It seems to him (in fact, he feels it) that this God of love, satisfied with such few words, reposes again and rests in the depth and center of his soul. The experience of these things gives him such certainty that God is always in the innermost part of his soul that he is beyond doubting it under any circumstances.

Judge by this what content and satisfaction he enjoys. While he continually finds within himself so great a treasure, he no longer has any need to search for it. He no longer has any anxiety about finding it because he now has his beautiful treasure open before him and may take what he pleases of it.

He often points out our blindness and exclaims that those who content themselves with so little are to be pitied. God, says he, has infinite treasure to bestow, and we take so little through routine devotion which lasts but a moment. Blind as we are, we hinder God, and stop the current of His graces. But when He finds a soul penetrated with a lively faith, He pours into it His graces and favors plentifully. There they flow like a torrent, which, after being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.

Yet we often stop this torrent by the little value we set upon it. Let us stop it no more. Let us enter into ourselves and break down the bank which hinders it. Let us make way for grace. Let us redeem the lost time, for perhaps we have but little left. Death follows us close so let us be well prepared for it. We die but once and a mistake there is irretrievable.

I say again, let us enter into ourselves. The time presses. There is no room for delay. Our souls are at stake. It seems to me that you are prepared and have taken effectual measures so you will not be taken by surprise. I commend you for it. It is the one thing necessary. We must always work at it, because not to persevere in the spiritual life is to go back. But those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep. If the vessel of our soul is still tossed with winds and storms, let us awake the Lord who reposes in it. He will quickly calm the sea.

I have taken the liberty to impart to you these good sentiments that you may compare them with your own. May they serve to re-kindle them, if at any time they may be even a little cooled. Let us recall our first favors and remember our early joys and comforts. And, let us benefit from the example and sentiments of this brother who is little known by the world, but known and extremely caressed by God.

I will pray for you. Please pray also for me, as I am yours in our Lord.

Fifth Letter

Today I received two books and a letter from Sister M—, who is preparing to make her profession. She desires the prayers of your holy society, and yours in particular. I think she greatly values your support. Please do not disappoint her. Pray to God that she may take her vows in view of His love alone, and with a firm resolution to be wholly devoted to Him. I will send you one of those books about the presence of God; a subject which, in my opinion, contains the whole spiritual life. It seems to me that whoever duly practices it will soon become devout.

I know that for the right practice of it, the heart must be empty of all other things; because God will possess the heart alone. As He cannot possess it alone, without emptying it of all besides, so neither can He act there and do in it what He pleases unless it be left vacant to Him. There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Only those can comprehend it who practice and experience it. Yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise. Let us do it from a principle of love, and because it is God’s will for us.

Were I a preacher, I would above all other things preach the practice of the presence of God. Were I a director, I would advise all the world to do it, so necessary do I think it, and so easy too. Ah! knew we but the want we have of the grace and assistance of God, we would never lose sight of Him, no, not for a moment.

Believe me. Immediately make a holy and firm resolution never more to forget Him. Resolve to spend the rest of your days in His sacred presence, deprived of all consolations for the love of Him if He thinks fit. Set heartily about this work, and if you do it sincerely, be assured that you will soon find the effects of it.

I will assist you with my prayers, poor as they are. I recommend myself earnestly to you and those of your holy society.

Sixth Letter

I have received from M— the things which you gave her for me. I wonder that you have not given me your thoughts on the little book I sent to you and which you must have received. Set heartily about the practice of it in your old age. It is better late than never.

I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of God. For my part I keep myself retired with Him in the depth and center of my soul as much as I can. While I am with Him I fear nothing; but the least turning from Him is insupportable. This practice does not tire the body. It is, however, proper to deprive it sometimes, nay often, of many little pleasures which are innocent and lawful. God will not permit a soul that desires to be devoted entirely to Him to take pleasures other than with Him. That is more than reasonable.

I do not say we must put any violent constraint upon ourselves. No, we must serve God in a holy freedom. We must work faithfully without trouble or disquiet, recalling our mind to God mildly and with tranquillity as often as we find it wandering from Him. It is, however, necessary to put our whole trust in God. We must lay aside all other cares and even some forms of devotion, though very good in themselves, yet such as one often engages in routinely. Those devotions are only means to attain to the end. Once we have established a habit of the practice of the presence of God, we are then with Him who is our end. We have no need to return to the means. We may simply continue with Him in our commerce of love, persevering in His holy presence with an act of praise, of adoration, or of desire or with an act of resignation, or thanksgiving, and in all the ways our spirits can invent.

Be not discouraged by the repugnance which you may find in it from nature. You must sacrifice yourself. At first, one often thinks it a waste of time. But you must go on and resolve to persevere in it until death, notwithstanding all the difficulties that may occur.

I recommend myself to the prayers of your holy society, and yours in particular. I am yours in our Lord.

Seventh Letter

I pity you much. It will be a great relief if you can leave the care of your affairs to M— and spend the remainder of your life only in worshipping God. He requires no great matters of us; a little remembrance of Him from time to time, a little adoration. Sometimes to pray for His grace. Sometimes to offer Him your sufferings. And sometimes to return Him thanks for the favors He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles. Console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him at your meals and when you are in company. The least little remembrance will always be pleasing to Him.

You need not cry very loud. He is nearer to us than we are aware. And we do not always have to be in church to be with God. We may make an oratory of our heart so we can, from time to time, retire to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less. He knows what we can do.

Let us begin then. Perhaps He expects but one generous resolution on our part. Have courage. We have but little time to live. You are nearly sixty-four, and I am almost eighty. Let us live and die with God. Sufferings will be sweet and pleasant while we are with Him. Without Him, the greatest pleasures will be a cruel punishment to us. May He be blessed by all.

Gradually become accustomed to worship Him in this way; to beg His grace, to offer Him your heart from time to time; in the midst of your business, even every moment if you can. Do not always scrupulously confine yourself to certain rules or particular forms of devotion. Instead, act in faith with love and humility.

You may assure M— of my poor prayers, and that I am their servant, and yours particularly.

Eighth Letter

You tell me nothing new. You are not the only one who is troubled with wandering thoughts. Our mind is extremely roving. But the will is mistress of all our faculties. She must recall our stray thoughts and carry them to God as their final end.

If the mind is not sufficiently controlled and disciplined at our first engaging in devotion, it contracts certain bad habits of wandering and dissipation. These are difficult to overcome. The mind can draw us, even against our will, to worldly things. I believe one remedy for this is to humbly confess our faults and beg God’s mercy and help.

I do not advise you to use multiplicity of words in prayer. Many words and long discourses are often the occasions of wandering. Hold yourself in prayer before God, like a dumb or paralytic beggar at a rich man’s gate. Let it be your business to keep your mind in the presence of the Lord. If your mind sometimes wanders and withdraws itself from Him, do not become upset. Trouble and disquiet serve rather to distract the mind than to re-collect it. The will must bring it back in tranquillity. If you persevere in this manner, God will have pity on you.

One way to re-collect the mind easily in the time of prayer, and preserve it more in tranquillity, is not to let it wander too far at other times. Keep your mind strictly in the presence of God. Then being accustomed to think of Him often, you will find it easy to keep your mind calm in the time of prayer, or at least to recall it from its wanderings. I have told you already of the advantages we may draw from this practice of the presence of God. Let us set about it seriously and pray for one another.

Ninth Letter

The enclosed is an answer to that which I received from M—. Please deliver it to her. She is full of good will but she would go faster than grace! One does not become holy all at once. I recommend her to your guidance. We ought to help one another by our advice, and yet more by our good example. Please let me hear of her from time to time and whether she is very fervent and obedient.

Let us often consider that our only business in this life is to please God, that perhaps all besides is but folly and vanity. You and I have lived over forty years in the monastic life. Have we employed them in loving and serving God, who by His mercy has called us to this state and for that very end? I am sometimes filled with shame and confusion when I reflect, on the one hand, upon the great favors which God has done and continues to do for me; and, on the other, upon the ill use I have made of them and my small advancement in the way of perfection.

Since, by His mercy, He gives us yet a little time, let us begin in earnest. Let us repair the lost time. Let us return with full assurance to that Father of mercies, who is always ready to receive us affectionately. Let us generously renounce, for the love of Him, all that is not Himself. He deserves infinitely more. Let us think of Him perpetually. Let us put all our trust in Him.

I have no doubt that we shall soon receive an abundance of His grace, with which we can do all things, and, without which we can do nothing but sin. We cannot escape the dangers which abound in life without the actual and continual help of God. Let us pray to Him for it constantly.

How can we pray to Him without being with Him? How can we be with Him but in thinking of Him often? And how can we often think of Him, but by a holy habit which we should form of it? You will tell me that I always say the same thing. It is true, for this is the best and easiest method I know. I use no other. I advise all the world to do it.

We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him. And when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.

Tenth Letter

I have had a good deal of difficulty bringing myself to write to M.—. I do it now purely because you desire me to do so. Please address it and send it to him. It is pleasing to see all the faith you have in God. May He increase it in you more and more. We cannot have too much trust in so good and faithful a Friend who will never fail us in this world nor in the next.

If M.— takes advantage of the loss he has had and puts all his confidence in God, He will soon give him another friend more powerful and more inclined to serve him. He disposes of hearts as He pleases. Perhaps M.— was too attached to him he has lost. We ought to love our friends, but without encroaching upon the love of God, which must always be first.

Please keep my recommendation in mind that you think of God often; by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you. Leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you. Why, then, must God be neglected? Do not forget Him but think on Him often. Adore Him continually. Live and die with Him. This is the glorious work of a Christian; in a word, this is our profession. If we do not know it, we must learn it.

I will endeavor to help you with my prayers, and am yours in our Lord.

Eleventh Letter

I do not pray that you may be delivered from your pains; but I pray earnestly that God gives you strength and patience to bear them as long as He pleases. Comfort yourself with Him who holds you fastened to the cross. He will loose you when He thinks fit. Happy are those who suffer with Him. Accustom yourself to suffer in that manner, and seek from Him the strength to endure as much, and as long, as He judges necessary for you.

Worldly people do not comprehend these truths. It is not surprising though, since they suffer like what they are and not like Christians. They see sickness as a pain against nature and not as a favor from God. Seeing it only in that light, they find nothing in it but grief and distress. But those who consider sickness as coming from the hand of God, out of His mercy and as the means He uses for their salvation, commonly find sweetness and consolation in it.

I pray that you see that God is often nearer to us and present within us in sickness than in health. Do not rely completely on another physician because He reserves your cure to Himself. Put all your trust in God. You will soon find the effects in your recovery, which we often delay by putting greater faith in medicine than in God. Whatever remedies you use, they will succeed only so far as He permits. When pains come from God, only He can ultimately cure them. He often sends sickness to the body to cure diseases of the soul. Comfort yourself with the Sovereign Physician of both soul and body.

I expect you will say that I am very much at ease, and that I eat and drink at the table of the Lord. You have reason. But think how painful it would be to the greatest criminal in the world to eat at the king’s table and be served by him, yet have no assurance of pardon? I believe he would feel an anxiety that nothing could calm except his trust in the goodness of his sovereign. So I assure you, that whatever pleasures I taste at the table of my King, my sins, ever present before my eyes, as well as the uncertainty of my pardon, torment me. Though I accept that torment as something pleasing to God.

Be satisfied with the condition in which God places you. However happy you may think me, I envy you. Pain and suffering would be a paradise to me, if I could suffer with my God. The greatest pleasures would be hell if I relished them without Him. My only consolation would be to suffer something for His sake.

I must, in a little time, go to God. What comforts me in this life is that I now see Him by faith. I see Him in such a manner that I sometimes say, I believe no more, but I see. I feel what faith teaches us, and, in that assurance and that practice of faith, I live and die with Him.

Stay with God always for He is the only support and comfort for your affliction. I shall beseech Him to be with you. I present my service.

Twelfth Letter

If we were well accustomed to the practice of the presence of God, bodily discomforts would be greatly alleviated. God often permits us to suffer a little to purify our souls and oblige us to stay close to Him.

Take courage. Offer Him your pain and pray to Him for strength to endure them. Above all, get in the habit of often thinking of God, and forget Him the least you can. Adore Him in your infirmities. Offer yourself to Him from time to time. And, in the height of your sufferings, humbly and affectionately beseech Him (as a child his father) to make you conformable to His holy will. I shall endeavor to assist you with my poor prayers.

God has many ways of drawing us to Himself. He sometimes seems to hide Himself from us. But faith alone ought to be our support. Faith is the foundation of our confidence. We must put all our faith in God. He will not fail us in time of need. I do not know how God will dispose of me but I am always happy. All the world suffers and I, who deserve the severest discipline, feel joys so continual and great that I can scarcely contain them.

I would willingly ask God for a part of your sufferings. I know my weakness is so great that if He left me one moment to myself, I would be the most wretched man alive. And yet, I do not know how He could leave me alone because faith gives me as strong a conviction as reason. He never forsakes us until we have first forsaken Him. Let us fear to leave Him. Let us always be with Him. Let us live and die in His presence. Do pray for me, as I pray for you.

Thirteenth Letter

I am sorry to see you suffer so long. What gives me some ease and sweetens the feeling I have about your griefs, is that they are proof of God’s love for you. See your pains in that view and you will bear them more easily. In your case, it is my opinion that, at this point, you should discontinue human remedies and resign yourself entirely to the providence of God. Perhaps He waits only for that resignation and perfect faith in Him to cure you. Since, in spite of all the care you have taken, treatment has proved unsuccessful and your malady still increases, wait no longer. Put yourself entirely in His hands and expect all from Him.

I told you in my last letter that He sometimes permits bodily discomforts to cure the distempers of the soul. Have courage. Make a virtue of necessity. Do not ask God for deliverance from your pain. Instead, out of love for Him, ask for the strength to resolutely bear all that He pleases, and as long as He pleases. Such prayers are hard at first, but they are very pleasing to God, and become sweet to those that love Him.

Love sweetens pains. And when one loves God, one suffers for His sake with joy and courage. Do so, I beseech you. Comfort yourself with Him. He is the only physician for all our illnesses. He is the Father of the afflicted and always ready to help us. He loves us infinitely more than we can imagine. Love Him in return and seek no consolation elsewhere. I hope you will soon receive His comfort. Adieu.

I will help you with my prayers, poor as they are, and shall always be yours in our Lord.

Fourteenth Letter

I give thanks to our Lord for having relieved you a little as you desired. I have often been near death and I was never so much satisfied as then. At those times I did not pray for any relief, but I prayed for strength to suffer with courage, humility, and love. How sweet it is to suffer with God! However great your sufferings may be, receive them with love. It is paradise to suffer and be with Him. If, in this life, we might enjoy the peace of paradise, we must accustom ourselves to a familiar, humble, and affectionate conversation with God.

We must hinder our spirits wandering from Him on all occasions. We must make our heart a spiritual temple so we can constantly adore Him. We must continually watch over ourselves so we do not do anything that may displease Him. When our minds and hearts are filled with God, suffering becomes full of unction and consolation.

I well know that to arrive at this state, the beginning is very difficult because we must act purely on faith. But, though it is difficult, we know also that we can do all things with the grace of God. He never refuses those who ask earnestly. Knock. Persevere in knocking. And I answer for it, that, in His due time, He will open His graces to you. He will grant, all at once, what He has deferred during many years. Adieu.

Pray to Him for me, as I pray to Him for you. I hope to see Him soon.

Fifteenth Letter

God knows best what we need. All that He does is for our good. If we knew how much He loves us, we would always be ready to receive both the bitter and the sweet from His Hand. It would make no difference. All that came from Him would be pleasing. The worst afflictions only appear intolerable if we see them in the wrong light. When we see them as coming from the hand of God and know that it is our loving Father who humbles and distresses us, our sufferings lose their bitterness and can even become a source of consolation.

Let all our efforts be to know God. The more one knows Him, the greater one desires to know Him. Knowledge is commonly the measure of love. The deeper and more extensive our knowledge, the greater is our love. If our love of God were great we would love Him equally in pain and pleasure.

We only deceive ourselves by seeking or loving God for any favors which He has or may grant us. Such favors, no matter how great, can never bring us as near to God as can one simple act of faith. Let us seek Him often by faith. He is within us. Seek Him not elsewhere.

Are we not rude and deserve blame if we leave Him alone to busy ourselves with trifles which do not please Him and perhaps even offend Him? These trifles may one day cost us dearly. Let us begin earnestly to be devoted to Him. Let us cast everything else out of our hearts. He wants to possess the heart alone. Beg this favor of Him. If we do all we can, we will soon see that change wrought in us which we so greatly desire.

I cannot thank Him enough for the relief He has given you. I hope to see Him within a few days. Let us pray for one another.


Brother Lawrence died peacefully within days of this last letter.


Overcome Evil by Doing Good

Drawing on the Book of Proverbs, St. Paul offers a simple admonition to his readers:

“…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20)

He then adds:

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It is a very simple statement. However, when anyone begins to suggest what that might look like, critics quickly begin to offer egregious examples that would ask us to bear the unbearable, with the inevitable conclusion: “Kill your enemies.” What is suggested, in effect, is that Christians should respond in the same way as any tyrant would, only a little less so. “Kill your enemies, but not so much.” (I use the term “kill” in this example only as the most extreme form of violence). A question: What is it about the Kingdom of God that gave Christ and the Apostles such a confidence in its non-violence?

Consider these verses:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (Jn. 18:36)

And

“But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Lk. 22:38)

And

“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)

There is something of a mystery in Christ’s instruction to buy a sword. Many consider it simply a metaphorical way of saying that troubles are coming. Indeed, one of those two swords is drawn and does terrible damage to a man when Christ is arrested, earning a rebuke. I have always wondered if Peter (the one who wielded the sword) thought to himself, “But I thought He said bring a sword!” As it is, Christ restored and healed the ear of the injured man.

The key, I think, is found in Christ’s statement to Pilate that His Kingdom is not “of” this world. That does not mean that the Kingdom is located somewhere else. Rather, it means that His Kingdom’s source is not found within the things of this world. It is a sovereign act of God. As such, its reality is independent of our actions and will. There is nothing in the Kingdom of God that requires our swords (or even our words). It is heaven-breaking-into-our-world. It is unassailable.

This is the faith of the martyrs. The long history of the Church’s faithful who have gone to their deaths include many stories of terrible persecutions and tortures. They also include an abiding witness to an abiding sense that everything being done to them somehow misses the point. When Christ stood before Pilate, He was threatened with the might and power of Rome. “Don’t you know I have the power to release you or to kill you?” Human beings have no power over God. The Kingdom of God willingly enters into the suffering of this world, willingly bears shame, willingly embraces the weakness of the Cross. The martyrs acted as they did because their lives were not of this world. Christians should not live in this world thinking about a world somewhere else (heaven). Rather, Christians themselves are heaven in this world. It is that reality to which we bear witness (martyr means “witness”).

Modern nation states came into existence slowly, as one of the consequences of the Reformation. Some, like England, had a head start, inasmuch as it was partially defined by its shoreline. But most, like France and Germany, evolved more slowly. We imagine today’s modern states as though they were defined by blood and language. However, that is a fantasy, little older then the 19th century. Nationalism, sadly, was one of a number of romantic movements that served to replace the common life of the Church with romantic notions of lesser, tribal belongings.

The patriotic mythologies that came into existence together with modernity’s nationalisms are siren songs that seek to create loyalties that are essentially religious in nature. World War I, in the early 20th century, was deeply revealing of the 19th century’s false ideologies. There, in the fields of France, European Christians killed one another by the millions in the name of entities that, in some cases, had existed for less than 50 years (Germany was born, more or less, in 1871). The end of that war did nothing, apparently, to awaken Christians to the madness that had been born in their midst.

I have noted, through the years, that the patriotism that inhabits the thoughts of many is a deeply protected notion, treated as a virtue in many circles. This often gives it an unexamined character, a set of feelings that do not come under scrutiny. Of course, there are other nation-based feelings and narratives, some of which are highly reactive to patriotism though they are driven as much by the passions and their own mythology. These are the sorts of passions that seem to have risen to a fever-pitch in the last decade or so, though they have been operative for a very long time.

These passions are worth careful examination, particularly as they have long been married to America’s many denominational Christianities. I think it is noteworthy that one of the most prominent 19th century American inventions was Mormonism. There, we have the case of a religious inventor (Joseph Smith) literally writing America into the Scriptures and creating an alternative, specifically American, account of Christ and salvation. It was not an accident. He was, in fact, drawing on the spirit of the Age, only more blatantly and heretically. But there are many Christians whose Christianity is no less suffused with the same sentiments.

Asking questions of these things quickly sends some heads spinning. They wonder, “Are we not supposed to love our country?” As an abstraction, no. We love people; we love the land. We owe honor to honorable things and persons. The Church prays for persons: the President, civil authorities, the armed forces. We are commanded to pray and to obey the laws as we are able in good conscience. Nothing more. St. Paul goes so far as to say that our “citizenship [politeia] is in heaven.” The assumption of many is that so long as the citizenship of earth does not conflict with the citizenship of heaven, all is fine. I would suggest that the two are always in conflict for the simple reason that one is “from above” while the other is “from below,” in the sense captured in Christ’s “my kingdom is not of this world.” There is a conflict. We should not expect that the kingdoms of this world will serve as the instrument of the Kingdom of God. Such confusions have yielded sinful actions throughout the course of the Church’s history.

St. Paul notes in Romans 13 that the state “does not bear the sword in vain.” It has an appointed role in the restraint of evil. Such a role, however, is not the instrument of righteousness. It can, at best, create a measure of tranquility (cf. the Anaphora of St. Basil). The work of the Kingdom of God cannot be coerced, nor can it be the work of coercion. It is freely embraced, even as it alone is the source of true freedom.

My purpose in offering these observations is, if possible, to “dial down” passions surrounding our thoughts of the nation and politics in order to love properly and deeply what should be loved. That this is difficult, and at times confusing, is to be expected. We live in a culture in which the passions are marketed to us in an endless stream, carefully designed for the greatest effect. If these thoughts of mine help quiet the passions to some degree, then I will have done well. If, on the other hand, they have stirred reaction, then, forgive me and let it go.

If the Kingdom of God were a ship (an image sometimes used of the Church), then we should not be surprised when the seas become boisterous and the winds become contrary. Nor should we panic if we find that Christ is asleep in the back of the boat. His sleeping, indeed, should be a clue as to what the true nature of our situation might be. There are some who imagine that the work of the Kingdom can only be fulfilled once we’ve learned to control the winds and the seas. We fail to understand that they already obey the One who sleeps.

And so we come to overcoming evil by doing good. It is a common teaching in the Fathers that evil has no substance – it only exists as a parasite. All created things are good by nature. It is the misuse of the good that we label “evil.” To do good thus has the character of eternity. It is not lost or diminished with time. Christ said, “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

When the final account is given, the nations will not be named. Their wars and empires will pass into what is forgotten. However, the many cups of cold water and other such acts of goodness will abide. I could imagine such actions on the part of a nation, and there are probably plenty. They likely go unnoticed, or even derided as wasteful.

I think that our politics and patriotism want to measure the seas, where God is measuring cups.


Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


Featured: Arrest of Christ, by Heinrich Hofmann; painted by 1858.


The Church is just a Building?

For some strange reason, in numerous conversations I have had with Protestants, the same statement has been made over and over by the other party while discussing the nature of the Church: “The Church is not a building!” The observation is most often accompanied with a special sort of emphasis — the cultivated certitude, the dead-eye look, the relish of one enlightening a fellow human being trapped in the depths of ignorance, topped off with a dramatic pause at the end allowing the auditor to savor the profundity of it all. It is same rhetorical flare that often accompanies that other great revelation:“You know, it’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.”

The curious thing is that this arresting disclosure that the Church is not a building is often said at the beginning of a discussion of what constitutes the true Church, and it has never been in response to me saying, “You know, the Church is a building.”

I am convinced that these various interlocutors all heard this negative definition of the Church from preachers versed in the same “ecclesiology”—which is probably the wrong word because what they learned is less like theology and more like bad rhetoric about the Church. My reaction to this claim has invariably been to agree with it and to point out that this higher, more spiritual, and less material reality that we are both calling “the Church of Christ” is actually the one to which I belong. After all, my objective in these conversations is — of course — to communicate to the other party that the one true Church of Jesus Christ is indeed the Catholic Church.

But I think I have been wrong in my approach all along. Consider:

“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

“Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God. Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:19-20).

“I will build…”; “built upon”: this is not pure symbolism. It would be much more true to say that the churches (oratories, chapels, etc.) that we worship in are the symbols. Regardless of the practical functions that they fulfill as places both of worship and of shelter from the elements, these earthly edifices stand as symbols of the more sublime reality that Jesus came to build, the one that extends beyond our time and space into Purgatory and Heaven itself.

My preferred hand missal, the Saint Andrew’s Daily Missal, has this gem of a paragraph in its brief commentary for the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilicas of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (Nov. 18; spelling and styles as in original):

The Dedication of St Mary Major at Rome was celebrated on August 5, that of St Michael on September 29, St John Lateran on November 9; the local feast of the dedication of all the consecrated churches has been fixed in many dioceses about this time; finally, today we celebrate the dedication of the Roman basilicas of St Peter and St Paul. These dedication feasts are fittingly placed in this season: after having celebrated the Kingship of Christ, we have remembered two provinces of His Kingdom: the Church triumphant (All Saints) and the Church suffering (All Souls): our material churches, carved with chisels and mallets (Vespers hymn), are an image of the Church militant. [Emphasis mine.]

The “Vespers hymn” mentioned by the Saint Andrew’s editors is the Cœlestis urbs Jerusalem. It is one particularly beautiful part of the liturgy for the dedication of a church, which, in its Mass, Divine Office, and pontifical ceremonies of consecration, is itself a sublime ceremonial edifice.

Let us not forget that Jesus was derided by some of His unbelieving critics not only as “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55), but also as “the carpenter, the son of Mary…” (Mark 6:3). When the creative Logos became Man, He through whom all that is made was made had as His earthly father a carpenter from whom He received that trade. It is most fitting that the humble Patriarch of Nazareth, the great Saint Joseph, toiled at this particular craft, for he was an image of the Eternal Father, the Creator of all things, “of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).

Jesus came as a builder. His saving mission included building a Church. The Church is a building.

But what a building! It is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, that “stone which the builders rejected,” who “is made the head of the corner” (Mark 12:10), and “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). Atop that foundation other stones are laid. Speaking to Christians, Saint Peter, who knew something about rocks, refers to this same Old-Testament passage that Jesus and the Evangelists invoke (Psalm 117: 22) and builds upon it. We Christians, he says, come to Christ, “as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen and made honourable by God”; then follows the apostolic admonition: “Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2:4-5).

In I Cor. 3:9-17, Saint Paul employs similar imagery, concluding his exhortation with these words:

Know you not, that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? But if any man violate the temple of God, him shall God destroy. For the temple of God is holy, which you are.

There is a tropological reading of all this “building” language (see The Four Senses of Scripture if you would like an explanation of the word tropological). If we are the living stones upon which the Church, the Temple of God, is built, then we must be chiseled, hammered, shaped, scraped, and put into our place, whether visibly resplendent in the structure or ingloriously crammed into some crevice to be seen by God alone.

In other words, in this life, we must be both perfected by prayer, penance, and patient suffering, and fit into our place by accepting our proper vocation or state in life and virtuously fulfilling its duties. God willing we do so, we will overcome our enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil) and become pillars in the New Jerusalem, that glorious heavenly temple the Apostle saw from Patmos (Apoc. 21:1-5a):

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more. And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new.

The title of this Ad Rem is ironic, if only slightly so—because of the word “just.” The Church is a building, as I believe the Scriptures make amply clear. After all, it is built by Jesus Christ. But it is a building that is also a bride, and a bride that is also a city, and a city that is also a kingdom, and a kingdom that is also a Mystical Body.

Let us make sure to remember all this when someone says to us, “The Church is not a building!”


Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel. This article appears courtesy of Catholicism.org.


Featured: West Front of Rouen Cathedral at Sunset, by Henri Vignet; painted in 1903.


The Preface of the Roman Mass

As a neophyte to Catholic tradition in the early 1990’s, I was struck by the beauty of that part of the Traditional Latin Mass called the “Preface.” The chant that accompanies it, sung by the celebrant alone, is not only stirring and commanding of the congregation’s attention, but it is also remarkably anticipatory, appropriately betokening that ineffably Great Thing that is soon to happen. If done right, the chant of the Preface perfectly introduces the angelic hymn of Trinitarian adoration, the Sanctus, which, whether it be sung in one of the Gregorian tones or according to one of any number of polyphonic settings, beautifully commences the Canon of the Mass. In a feature unique to the classical Roman Rite, once the grand strains of the Trisagion die down, the Canon then proceeds in total silence that is only interrupted by the peel of the bells at the double consecration.

Here, the beauty of the rite showcases the sublime truth and supernal goodness of what is actually taking place in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Only a few years ago, when I expressed my love of this particular chant to a visiting priest from London, he told me that I was not alone in my love of the Preface Tone. No less a musician than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart considered it great music. In its entry on Ecclesiastical Music, the old Catholic Encyclopedia makes reference to this opinion of the great Austrian composer:

Mozart’s statement, “that he would gladly exchange all his music for the fame of having composed the Gregorian Preface,” sounds almost hyperbolic.

Hyperbolic or no, the appreciation it expresses from a musical genius is no doubt real.

In the earliest centuries of the Roman Rite, the text of the Preface was longer and was included as part of the Canon of the Mass. Along with the Trisagion (“thrice holy”) that we Latins call the Sanctus, it is found in all the rites of the Church. Our Eastern Christian brethren — whether of the Alexandrine, Antiochian, Byzantine, Armenian, etc., Rites, — still have what we call the Prefatio and Sanctus as part of their Anaphora, which is the “Eucharistic Prayer” that corresponds to our Canon. For them it still contains, as it did for us Occidentals in the earliest centuries, a lengthy litany of divine favors throughout salvation history for which we must be grateful.

It is, in fact, the very gratitude expressed in the Preface (Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and later: vere dignum et justum est… gratias agere: “it is right and just… to give thanks”) that attaches the word Eucharist (Thanksgiving) to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as one of its earliest and most universal appellations. The Mass is, par excellence, the Great Act of Thanksgiving, and it is the Preface that gives words to this reality.

Aside from the shortening of the text over time—mostly before the Leonine Sacramentary came into use—the Preface went through another important series of changes. Unlike its Eastern counterparts, the Roman Preface was a changeable part of the Mass. In the Leonine Sacramentary, which was in use from the fourth to the seventh centuries, there were 267 Prefaces. That changed in the later Gelasian Sacramentary to 54. The Gregorian Sacramentary had only 10, but then added another hundred in an appendix. At the time Adrian Fortesque wrote the entry, “Preface,” for the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), there were eleven Prefaces in use:

The Roman Missal now contains eleven Prefaces. Ten are in the Gregorian Sacramentary, one (of the Blessed Virgin) was added under Urban II (1088-99). The pope himself is reported to have composed this Preface and to have sung it first at the Synod of Guastalla in 1094.

But that needs to be updated! The 1952 Saint Andrew’s Daily Missal that I use regularly, has fifteen prefaces, which corresponds exactly to the contents of an old 1935 Altar Missal we have in our sacristy. They are:

Christmas
Epiphany
Lent
The Holy Cross (for Passiontide and Feasts of the Holy Cross)
Easter
Ascension
The Sacred Heart
Christ the King
The Holy Ghost
The Holy Trinity
The Blessed Virgin Mary
Saint Joseph
The Apostles
Common Preface
Preface for the Dead

A 1962 Altar Missal we possess has one added preface listed with these others, the Preface for the Chrism Mass, which I assume is owing to the Bugnini “reform” of Holy Week. In addition, this same Missal, published by the FSSP, lists four “particular Prefaces” that are used in certain dioceses: for Advent, the Blessed Sacrament (Corpus Christi and votive Masses), the Saints (All Saints and titular patrons of churches), and, lastly, the Dedication of a Church.

What is proper to the different Prefaces are brief, compact liturgical texts that are very useful for mental prayer.

There are two ceremonies in addition to the Holy Mass that employ the Gregorian “preface tone” so beloved of Mozart and yours truly. One is the ordination rite, and the other is the traditional Praeconium Paschale (Easter Proclamation) chanted by the deacon on Holy Saturday, known more commonly by its first word as “the Exsultet” (you can listen to it on YouTube; the melody of the preface tone comes in around the 3:15 mark of the video). The ancient Preface tone was applied to these rites later, by way of imitation of its use in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

What follows is a passage from Dom Guéranger’s masterful Explanation of the Holy Mass; it is the pious and learned Abbot’s sublime commentary on the Common Preface (all orthography, punctuation, capitalization, etc., as in the original English translation by Dom Laurence Shepard, O.S.B.).

***

ALTHOUGH the Priest has been making his petitions [of the Secret] in a low voice, yet he terminates this his Prayer aloud, exclaiming: Per omnia saecula saeculorum; to which the Faithful respond Amen, that is to say, we ask also, for what thou hast been asking. In fact, the Priest never says anything in the Holy Sacrifice without the assent of the Faithful, who, as we have already noticed, participate in the Priesthood. They have not heard what the Priest has been saying, nevertheless they join therein and approve heartily of all, by answering their Amen, yea, our Prayer is one with thine! The dialogue here begun between Priest and people is maintained for a while, at length leaving the final word to the Priest alone, who gives thanks solemnly, in the name of all there assembled.

The Priest then salutes the people, but this time without turning to them, saying: Dominus vobiscum, the Lord be with you: lo! now is the most solemn moment of Prayer! And the Faithful respond: Et cum Spiritu tuo, may He be with thy Spirit, may He aid thee, lo! we are one with thee! — Then the Priest says: Sursum Corda! lift up your hearts! The Priest requires that their hearts be detached from earthly thoughts, so that they may be directed on God alone; for the Prayer he is about to make is that of

Thanksgiving. Admire how well placed is this Prayer here, for the Priest is on the point of accomplishing the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, and this Sacrifice is verily for us the Instrument of Thanksgiving; it is the Means whereby we are enabled to render back to God that which we owe Him. So Holy Mother Church, delighting with intensest relish in this magnificent Prayer, would fain arouse her faithful children with this cry: Sursum Corda! in order that they too may appreciate, as she does, this great Act of Thanksgiving, whereby she offers unto God a Something that is Great and worthy of Him. And now the Faithful hasten to express their reassurances to the Priest: Habemus ad Dominum! we have our hearts raised up unto the Lord! Then, replies the Priest, if indeed it is so, let us all unitedly give thanks unto the Lord: Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro. And the Faithful at once add: Dignum et justum est. Thus do they unite themselves wholly with the Thanksgiving of the Preface which the Priest is about to speak. — This dialogue is as old as the Church herself, and there is every reason to believe that the Apostles themselves arranged it, because it is to be found in the most ancient Churches and in all Liturgies. As far as possible, the Faithful should make an effort never to be seated on any account during these acclamations. Now does the Priest take up the speech himself and continues thus alone: Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique, gratias agere: Domine Sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus, per Christum Dominum nostrum. So it is truly just to give Thee thanks, O Almighty God, tibi to Thee, Thyself, semper et ubique, always and everywhere, and to render Thee this our Thanks, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Yes, indeed, it is through Jesus Christ that our Thanksgiving must be made, for were we to do so in our own name, there would be the Infinite between God and ourselves, and so our Thanksgiving could never reach unto Him; whereas, made through Jesus Christ, it goes straight up, and penetrates even right to the very centre of the Divinity. But, not only must we, human creatures, go to the Father through Our Lord, but the very Angels even, have no access except through Him. Hearken once more to the Priest: Per quem Majestatem tuam laudant Angeli; by Whom, (i.e., Jesus Christ), the Angels praise Thy Majesty: for, since the Incarnation, they adore the Godhead, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, the Sovereign High-Priest. Adorant Dominationes, the Dominations adore through Jesus Christ; tremunt Potestates, the Powers too, those beauteous Angels, make their celestial thrillings heard, and in awe, tremble before the Face of Jesus Christ: Coeli, the Heavens, that is to say, Angels of still higher order; Coelorumque Virtutes, and the Heavenly Virtues also, Angels yet more exalted; ac beata Seraphim, and the Blessed Seraphim, who by their pure love come nighest unto God, — socia exsultatione concelebrant, all these stupendous Choirs blended together in one harmonious transport concelebrate, through Jesus Christ, the Majesty Divine. The Prefaces thus terminate by mentioning the Angels, in order to lead the Church Militant to sing the Hymn of the Church Triumphant. Cum quibus et nostras voces ut dimitti jubeas deprecamur, supplici confessione dicentes; yea, fain are we to join anon our feeble voice to that mighty angelic strain, and we crave leave to begin even now whilst here below, and sinners still, the great: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Thus all Prefaces are formed on the one great idea of Giving Thanks to God, gratias agere; and of making this Thanksgiving through Jesus Christ, because it is by Him Alone that we can come nigh unto God, yea, approach in union with the Angels too, with whom we join in the celestial chorus of their Trisagion.

Besides this the Common Preface, Holy Church offers us others wherein we invite the Heavenly Spirits to celebrate with us, in one joint Act of Thanksgiving, the principal Mysteries of the Man-God, whether at Christmas or in Lent, or at Passion-tide, or at Easter, or, again, at Ascension or Pentecost. Nor does she fail to remember Her by whom Salvation came to this our earth, the Glorious Virgin Mary; as also the holy Apostles by whom Redemption was preached to the entire world.

The Preface is intoned on the very same melody used by the ancient Greeks when celebrating some hero in their feasts, and there declaiming his mighty deeds in song.


Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel. This article appears courtesy of Catholicism.org.


Featured: The Mass of Saint Gregory, by the Spanish Painter; painted ca. 1490–1500.


Arché and Montesquieu’s Principles

E principio oriuntur omnia ( Cicero, De re publica).

1.

In the Esprit des lois Montesquieu wrote “Having examined what are the laws of every government, let us now see those which are relative to its principle. Between the nature of government and its principle there is this difference: that it is its nature that makes it so, and its principle that makes it act. The one is its particular structure, the other the human passions that make it move.” The importance that the President à mortier attached to the “principle of government” was anticipated in Book I, when in illustrating the foundations of the laws of each people he writes, “They must be in harmony with the nature and principle of the government established, or intended to be established, whether forming it, as political laws do; or maintaining it, as civil laws do.”

To find the principle of each government, Montesquieu starts from the nature of it, and in particular who “exercises supreme power, and, secondly, how he can accomplish it,” and concludes the chapter thus, “I need nothing more to find the three principles of the above governments; they flow naturally from them. I will begin with the republican government and first speak of the democratic” of which he points to virtue as the principle. Immediately afterwards he explains why “A monarchical government or a despotic one does not need much probity to maintain or sustain itself. The force of the laws in the one, the arm of the prince always raised in the other, regulate or govern everything. But in a popular state an extra spring is needed, which is none other than virtue… for in a monarchy, where he who enforces the laws judges himself above them, virtue is needed to a lesser extent than in a popular government, where he who enforces the laws feels that he himself is subject to them, and will bear the burden of them.”

And, in the republics themselves, democracies need far more of it than aristocratic governments: “Greek politicians who lived in a popular government recognized virtue as the only force capable of sustaining it;” while “virtue is also necessary in aristocratic government, although it is not required there as absolutely… By nature of the constitution, it is therefore necessary for that body (the aristocracy, ed.) to possess virtue.” And this lesser virtue (because it is limited to the governing body) is moderation: “Moderation is therefore the soul of these governments; but that… which is founded on virtue, not on cowardice or laziness of mind.”

By contrast, in monarchy “the state lives independently of love of country, of the desire for true glory… of all those heroic virtues we find among the ancients… Laws take the place of these virtues, which are now useless… I am not at all unaware that virtuous princes are not rare, but I do say that it is very difficult that in a monarchy the people are so.” Thus, in monarchies the principle, the “gear” that makes the state work, is honor, because “ambition is dangerous, in a republic, but it has good effects in a monarchy: it gives it life, and it has the advantage of not being dangerous.” Finally, in a despotic government, “As in a republic, virtue is needed, and in a monarchy honor, so in despotic government fear is needed: virtue is not needed there, and honor would be dangerous. The prince’s immense power passes entirely into the hands of those in whom he confides… when in a despotic government the prince forgets for a moment to raise his hand, when he cannot annihilate in the twinkling of an eye those who hold the first places, all is lost… It is necessary therefore that the people be judged by the laws, and the great by the whim of the prince; that the head of the last among the subjects be secure, and that of the pashas always in danger.”

2.

In conclusion according to Montesquieu:

The principle (of the “form”) of government is the driving force that makes it act.

This principle is, to varying degrees, virtue; this must be possessed by those who govern: in democracies, by all citizens, in aristocracies by the optimates, in monarchies by the king. He does not write it, but even in despotic states the despot must have a glimmer of virtue (perhaps different). Honor and fear are feelings that belong to the subjects. In particular to the collaborators of the sovereigns.

The principle is necessary, because a body politic is composed of men, is a vital institution and cannot disregard what is likely to make men act and thus the institution. Laws are necessary, but not sufficient for the existence and vitality of the whole.
The principle is what “unifies” rulers and ruled: it affects the command/obedience relationship, and is at once a factor of integration and legitimacy.

Like the “classical” political thinkers, Montesquieu sees institutions made up of men, where some command and others obey: it is far from the French thinker to believe that a beautiful constitution, complete with moving enunciations of principles, and myriad implementing laws (equally moving) are enough to make a viable state. Laws are not enough: to constitute and preserve it requires the gear that makes them live. Indeed, between the laws and the principle (the gear), there must be consistency: it would be clueless to constitute a democratic government without a modicum of virtue, and even more so a despotic government without fear.
Virtue plays an extremely important role in this context, primarily because it recurs—even if not equally necessary for all—in the three non-despotic forms of government; and in this, Montesquieu harks back to ancient political thought, for which it was natural to link the fate and fortune of the polis to the virtue of the citizens; and not to the mere “goodness” of the laws. If, as Montesquieu writes in the opening of the Esprit des lois, “Laws… are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things; and, in this sense, all beings have their own laws: the gods, the animals, man,” from the very beginning of the work he fixes—so to speak—the relationship between existent and normative: in which the former determines the latter far more than the latter can do on the former.

In this sense, the principles of government are the indispensable gear for the community: which, not living by rules alone, even the best possible ones, must be based on a (general) principle that determines it to act. Because on the historical level—and not only—to exist means to act: and acting calls for mobilizing the human will(s); the Thomist rule, omne agens agit propter finem, applies, which, more than a century after Montesquieu, a great jurist like Jhering would identify in the connection between purpose and interest.

3.

Shortly after Montesquieu’s death, the figure of the legislateur, of the one (those) who gives (give) certain rules to the community, began to be emphasized; and of the same rules—fixed in laws—which, rather than being discovered by studying the “nature of things,” are the product (prevalent or exclusive) of the human will. It is this that gives laws to things, and not vice versa. The relationship between the existing and the normative begins to tilt in favor of the latter. Modern constitutions that are the fruit of human reason (of equity, justice, but in effect of will) are the most obvious fruit of this. That constitution which is not such if, as Thomas Paine wrote, you cannot put it in your pocket, written, the result of public deliberation, following (mostly) free and rational discussion. For a long time, however, the main links that anchored the normative to the existent, particularly to will and virtue in citizens, were not lost. Indeed, the French Revolution, and the Jacobins in particular, made virtue a necessary and primary element of the new political regime: a sign that the links to the real were still robust.

Later, as Ernst Forsthoff writes, “the doctrine of the state took a path that distanced it from human qualities, and consequently also from virtue. In Georg Jellinek’s work, which well represents the period at the turn of the century, this is no longer mentioned.”

Hence the later one “became a doctrine of the state without virtue.” Probably, indeed to follow Forsthoff surely, the whole thing was a consequence of legal positivism (broadly understood), whereby the doctrine of the state is the doctrine of its institutional and functional system, and prescinds from human qualities. In this we can also see a prevalence of “technical,” and, in particular “technical-normative” aspects; Carl Schmitt wrote that already clear in Machiavelli’s thought was the technical aspect of conquering and preserving power; but this technique did not prescind from either human qualities or human relations. Whereas contemporary normativistic “technique” implies doing without—or reducing to the minimum—the one and the other.

However, as Forsthoff writes, the success of positivism was such “that German law, neither before nor since, has ever again reached or maintained, in jurisdiction and administration, such a high level;” and this was possible in good part, thanks to the qualities (to the “virtues”) of the German professional bureaucracy, the result, in particular, of the alliance “between a historically based Enlightenment and the legacy of the Reformation,” whereby “this legal system, apparently stripped of all ethical reference and stuck to the purely technical plane, still had its own ethics, in that it was based on specific human virtues, without which it could not be understood.” Thus, to think that a state can stand on the strength of the goodness of laws alone is to make a partially true (and therefore partially false) statement. No “good constitution” can function well if it is not adapted to the objective situation and the existing real forces, in which the moral qualities (virtues) of those who govern, or rather exercise public functions (starting with voting), are included to a decisive extent.

4.

Forsthoff’s findings should also be updated according to what is thought—mostly—about in these years, in the late postwar period, which has become a (third) postwar (cold) period.

Nowadays, anyone who speaks of virtue would move to laughter (or a smile), and not only because of the unedifying spectacle offered by the ruling elites, but, even more, because no one thinks of virtue as a factor in sustaining the community, and democracy in the first place, anymore. He would be answered that good laws are enough, and he would be considered an oddball. But to the writer, and given the consideration accorded by Western thought to the necessary relationship between virtue and good institution, it seems bizarre to argue otherwise; and the first retort that comes to mind is the Tacitian corruptissima res publica, plurimae leges, on the other hand amply confirmed in Italy over the last half century. Secondly, if so many thinkers, from Plato to Aristotle, from Cicero to Machiavelli, from Montesquieu to Mably (to name a tiny fraction) have held the contrary, it is not clear why one would share the idea that a state needs only good laws and, above all, does not need a certain amount of virtue (and especially what experience of what political unity corroborates it).

To a large extent this is the outcome of the extreme phase of the functionalization and technicalization of law, the most coherent conception of which is legal neopositivism. A prerequisite (and general condition) of which is to conceive of the world as a universe of norms, where there are no persons (or subjects of law), but centers of imputation of legal relations; there are no hierarchies of men, but gradations of norms; not subjective rights, but norms to be applied; not the sovereign, but the Grundnorm, and so on in a consistent de-humanization (and de-concretization) of the worldview. The only human element remains the “knowledge of the jurist;” in which this conception is revealed as the ideology of a particular social group, of the officials of the decadent phase of the bourgeois rule of law.

In such a conception, everything that is “extra-normative” is not legal (and therefore irrelevant): at most it comes down to the appeal to “constitutional values.”

This seems to have the function of satisfying (at a minimum) the need to ground collective existence on something that is nonnormative anyway, and thus to “gain the ground of a recognized legitimacy” by going beyond mere legality. That is, it constitutes the exception to the mostly shared view (by jurists).

5.

In fact, the “classical” conception (within which to place Montesquieu’s theory of principles) was the answer to the question: when is order vital (in the first place) and just?

The answer—given more than two millennia of political reflection—combines “existential” and “factual” factors with others of a more properly “normative” and legal nature, with the former prevailing over the latter. Personal qualities, beliefs, legitimacy, authority constitute (but do not exhaust) its essential cornerstones.

If, on the other hand, one asks for an answer to the question of how one should correctly (validly) interpret a legal norm, and more generally how the jurist’s knowledge is to be attuned to the normative system—that is, a different question—and one with reduced content, the answer normativists give, by expunging from the horizon of the (practical) jurist any “factual” element, has its correctness. For which, however, as noted, particularly because of the formal character of such a theory of law (and the like), there exists (and does occur) the risk that “by reducing law to logical propositions disregarding their content, some piece of it too important to be neglected, or bracketed, is lost along the way, so to speak, just as a physical theory is exposed to the risk of neglecting some aspect of reality too important not to need to be explained. On the other hand, who can assure me that my model of knowledge of reality is truly coextensive with the reality I want to explain? In other words, who can assure me that my reasoning really explains everything I need to explain? Science risks being a set of propositions that, paradoxically, does not photograph the world, but itself; that is, the scientist risks seeing nothing but his own reasoning, and not the reality he wants to explain. “Truth” thus means only consistency to the starting assumptions, which, moreover, are unproven, and dissolves reference to reality, to explain which the “pure” scientist began to do science. We are facing a real implosion of the system.”

And this is precisely the point: by narrowing the problem of the order to that of the proper application of norms, one expunges from the legal horizon the main and determining elements, and in any case much of what is necessarily part of it. That is, both the aspect of the unity, action and cohesion of the social group, and that of the application of law (through organized coercion and legitimate violence); so normativism has been regarded by many as a legal gnoseology, and it is, because, consistently, it eliminates from the legal horizon everything that is “factual.”

Conversely, and in the line of classical political thought, we find (among others) the institutionalist jurists, who obviously take into consideration (maximally) the order and all those existential factors that condition and determine its form and action, with particular regard to the concrete situation.

Hauriou, who in Précis de droit constitutionnel repeatedly criticizes Kelsen, beginning with the error, which he stigmatizes, of assimilating “objective order to static order” and subordinating “strictly the dynamic to the static.” Whereas “what men call stability is not stillness, but the coordinated (d’ensemble) slow and uniform movement that lets a certain general form of things subsist.” To make sense of and understand it, Kelsen’s essentially static system, in which there is no place for human freedom, is wholly unsuitable.

Santi Romano with the constant attention he gave from his youth until shortly before his death to the problems of change, legitimation and crisis of the legal systems is, likewise, exemplary of a dynamic and vitalistic conception of law. Going back to Montequieu, he was very clear that a human community lives in history, in space and (also) in time: the same can be said of Hauriou and Romano, who have a sense of “two-dimensional” law.

Instead, a static system is, as it were, to paraphrase Marcuse, a one-dimensional right, since it takes no account of time—and consequently of history (as of so many other things).

In this sense Hauriou’s critique of “static” systems that convert into a contemplation of rules is penetrating.

6.

That being said, it is necessary to see what the concept of virtue was for Montesquieu and whether it is still necessary today:

“Virtue in a republic is a very simple thing. It is the love of the republic: it is a feeling and not a series of notions.”

However, given the equivocity of the term, Montesquieu since the avertissement to the Esprit des lois has been keen to define it, outlining its public and political and not private (i.e. “non-political”) character by specifying:

“What I call virtue in the republic is love of country… It is neither a moral nor a Christian virtue; it is political virtue; it is the gear that makes republican government act (mouvoir).”

Consistent with what Plato (Callicles’ thesis in the Gorgias) and Aristotle already held, political virtue is connoted by the citizen (civis), i.e., the public man, not the bonus paterfamilias, i.e., the private man: an essential distinction, maintained by philosophical thought and particularly Christian theology, from Luther to Bellarmine. And which, consistent with the general confusion of public and private, nowadays is often no longer understood, to the point that, to hear some crude demagogue, any good man (as long as privately honest) would suffice to lead a state. Which (not new, but often repeated) aroused Croce’s sarcasm, as of “the ideal that sings in the soul of all imbeciles.” Surely there is no need for that kind of private virtue: not that it spoils; but surely the state can exist and act even if sexual mores are relaxed and business mores not exactly adamantine.

Instead of the other, what Montesquieu called political virtue is felt to be needed, in proportion to how much it has been reduced for over fifty years.

How one feels the need for Montesquieu’s lesson on the principles of government as sentiments and as gears to make the state institution act. The contrary, much-repeated thesis that good rules (laws) are sufficient is flawed by (at least) three errors:

The first of which is the reduction of law to legal gnoseology, as a technique of applying norms to the concrete case. Appropriate to this conception is the criticism above that “some too important piece of it” is thus lost. Whereas law is essentially a system for regulating action. It is the orientation that gives human actions the decisive aspect for understanding the essence of law.

Second, and consequently, that rules are not enough: these can regulate, permit, command actions, but without ever neglecting that the “object” of them is human action.

And above all, finally, that in order to sustain the original legal phenomenon, that is, the institution, it is necessary to leverage (also) the feeling that makes “government act.”

A state that does not act, that does not leverage sentiment (i.e., principle) is a gangrenous institution: to exist, in history, means to act. Acting does not mean (only) enforcing rules, but above all having what in different terms of similar concepts has been called virtue, love of country, sense of state. Without which—or lacking which—the state falls or decays.

Of course, one can reply like Don Abbondio that virtue is like courage: if one does not have it, one cannot give it. But one must reply that a first step to (attempt to) have it is to think that it is necessary. That is, the opposite of current idols.


Teodoro Katte Klitsche de la Grange is an attorney in Rome and is the editor of the well-regarded and influential law journal Behemoth.


Featured: Allegory of Virtue and Vice, by Veronese; painted ca. 1581.