The University Bookman


Winter 2018

Political Thinking from the Hillbilly Thomist

book cover imageA Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor
edited by Henry T. Edmonson III.
The University Press of Kentucky, 2017.
Hardcover, 398 pages, $60.

Karl C. Schaffenburg

This volume represents the latest addition to an ongoing series from the University Press of Kentucky, Political Companions to Great American Authors. The guiding principle of the series is to expand the study of American political thought by exploring the repository of insights offered in literature, insights that refract the light cast by theorists, philosophers, essayists, and (dare it be said) practitioners of politics. Of the fourteen writers included in the series to date, Flannery O’Connor is the most overtly theological in her frame of reference, being most often described as a Catholic author. And it is in the intersection of her Catholic theology, her personal experience of suffering, her sharing in the suffering of others, and her strong reticence about the pace of social change, that O’Connor’s political thinking emerged.

O’Connor once referred to herself as a “hillbilly Thomist.” She did so in response to those who could not classify her comfortably. She was not a so-called Agrarian—those writers who defended a way of life (and specifically a Southern way of life) under threat from modernism. She could not be fit easily into any mold of the broader schools of twentieth-century public debate in America. As explored in detail in the essays in this volume, O’Connor’s relationship with the Agrarians could be little more than one of sympathy, for her well-developed views on the necessary congruence between religious identity and Southern identity were arrived at on the basis of a real understanding of faith as involving a lived experience and not just a set of ideas to be assented to. She had far more admiration for the wilder expressions of religion (as personified in many of her fictional characters) than for those comfortable in the mainstream of “Christian” culture, for she recognized that a Christianity that is comfortable is at best lukewarm.

In the often-violent epiphanies experienced by her characters O’Connor expressed her knowledge of God as a consuming flame. And it is in her experience of suffering that her view of the sacramental nature of life emerged. The sharing of suffering is explored, for example, in an essay that examines O’Connor’s lengthy correspondence with Betty Hester (a sometime atheist philosopher marginalized and suffering in part because of her sexuality). The O’Connor who emerges in this essay by Ralph C. Wood is amplified in another by Sarah Gordon, which explores how a woman molded by the pre-Civil Rights South and by deep reflection in Scholastic theology and philosophy could also be a woman who described the Catholic philosopher Bl. Edith Stein (herself a German Jew who became an atheist only to become a Discalced Carmelite nun and martyr), and Simone Weil, the left-wing mystic, as the two twentieth-century women of greatest interest to her. These explorations of the inner O’Connor are amplified in essays in which O’Connor’s thinking on some of the more troubling aspects of modernity is examined, including eugenics, the concept of personhood, and the sometime collisions which occur between the humanitarian impulse and a focus on virtue ethics.

Notably for readers of the University Bookman, how O’Connor met with and interacted with the thought of Russell Kirk is analyzed in an essay by Henry T. Edmondson III, the overall editor of this volume. As well done as Edmondson’s essay is, it is in reading his analysis together with his remarks in the general introduction to the volume that the thinking of O’Connor best emerges as reflecting the conservative impulse and worldview described by Russell Kirk.

O’Connor’s political outlook—the worldview inhabited by her misfit characters—is an Aristotelian one, one in which the concept of the “political” and “politics” encompasses those matters that contribute to human flourishing, matters that include elements as diverse as individual virtue, family life, the nature of public discourse, and the place of material goods. It is this worldview which O’Connor opposed to what she recognized as Nietzsche’s insight, that nihilism and the abandonment of Judeo-Christian tradition were the same thing, an emerging social condition that became “the air we breathe.” For O’Connor, the experience of “nothingness” was the consequence of the world acting as though God was irrelevant to modern life, and in her often primitive characters O’Connor opposed the nothingness with the very flesh-and-blood reality of passion, even if this passion was often expressed in fallenness and mania.

In Kirk’s criticism of his fellow conservatives’ obsession with economic matters, and in his focus on “permanent things” (those timeless principles that insure moral continuity in civilization), O’Connor encountered a kindred spirit, for as a “hillbilly Thomist” her natural-law worldview remained in all things focused on “permanent things.” Both writers understood that misguided humanitarianism is just the smiling face of human pride, a human-centered worldview that in our day and age has made an idol of advanced technology, but in the lifetimes of O’Connor and Kirk also allowed them to witness that the trajectory from a human desire to “fix” others to the gas chamber is a straight one resulting from the rejection of the sacramentality of life. For O’Connor, the scandal is that our existence is corporeal, not just spiritual; that it “is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.” In other words, the “permanent things” of Kirk are summed up by her in an incarnational and sacramental worldview and experience.

There are no weak essays in this collection. Quite apart from the intellectual and scholarly credentials of the contributors this arises from the fact that the essays focus not on “ideology” (a bête noir of Kirk) but on thinking. O’Connor’s political views on race relations can, for example, be characterized as in close parallel to those of the white pastors to whom Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. And yet, to assess O’Connor through the ideological prism of what it means in any day and age and place to be a “racist” is to miss the point that her witness on such an issue is revealed in the lives and actions of her fictional characters more than in her own essays, reviews, and correspondence. An author of fiction can populate her world with characters who live out their lives under her all-seeing eye, and in this overview of O’Connor’s work, A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor embodies good sense in focusing more on the world she created than on the world in which she lived in her too-short life.  

The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg is an Episcopal priest serving in Wisconsin, having previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and Europe.

Posted: February 25, 2018

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