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Fall 2017

The Ark of Tradition

book cover imageRoman Catholicism and Political Form
by Carl Schmitt, translated by G. L. Ulmen.
Praeger, (1923) 1996.
Hardcover, 112 pages, $94.

Adrian Vermeule

In Carl Schmitt’s masterful but underappreciated essay of 1923, Roman Catholicism and Political Form—written well before his apostasy to Nazism in the early 1930s—Schmitt twice uses precisely the same phrase: “the machine has no tradition.” The repetition seems entirely deliberate and suggests that the idea is near the center of Schmitt’s argument. What does Schmitt mean by this, and what significance does it have for us?

The phrase appears in two different, but related, contexts. In the first, Schmitt writes that “[t]he modern factory, lacking representation and imagery, takes its symbols from another age because the machine has no tradition. It is so little capable of creating an image that even the Russian Soviet Republic found no other symbol for its badge of rule than the hammer and sickle.” Schmitt’s point here isn’t about the Soviet state per se; indeed he is explicit throughout that the Bolshevik and the large capitalist are on the same side of the crucial fault-line of the age. “The big industrialist has no other ideal than that of Lenin—an ‘electrified earth.’ They disagree essentially only on the correct method of electrification. American financiers and Russian Bolsheviks find themselves in a common struggle for economic thinking, that is, the struggle against politicians and jurists.”

Rather, the major fault-line runs between two distinct types of rationality: the “economic” rationality shared by both the capitalist and Bolshevik, on the one hand, and the “juridical” rationality of Catholicism on the other. Economic rationality is a means-end rationality that treats Nature as a source of raw material, that struggles heroically to subdue Nature to ends determined by human will, and that (as a consequence) brings about and then inhabits a denatured world of grand dichotomies—with cities of glass and steel on one side and the untamed “environment” and “climate” on the other, to be studied and manipulated strictly as objects of science. Economic rationality equates all rationality with the methods of the natural sciences, and in Humean vein takes ends or goals as simply given, outside the framework of rational argument. It thus attempts to depoliticize society, bracketing all substantive and normative debate over ends insofar as possible. The byproduct of this attempt, in the political sphere, is some form of political liberalism, which attempts to privatize thick commitments and to either quarantine comprehensive substantive views about the proper ends of politics, or transform them into reasonable “preferences,” to be harmonized with the preferences held by others.

The problem with this stance, both in economic and political spheres, is that in a regime of technical-liberal rationality, agents act to achieve posited goals without knowing why those are the goals they are acting to achieve, or where their aims come from. “In modern economy, a completely irrational consumption conforms to a totally rationalized production … without bringing into question what is most important—the rationality of the purpose of this supremely rational mechanism.” Economic rationality thus becomes utterly mysterious to itself; it does not understand itself, its purposes, or what it stands for, as opposed to what it can accomplish.

For Schmitt, the great antithesis of economic-technical rationality is the juridical rationality of the Church. This is not primarily a means-end rationality (although, one may add, it is sufficiently flexible to encompass such rationality in the form of prudence and the determinatio, the discretionary specification of particular positive means for attaining general ends given by the natural law). Instead Catholic juridical rationality rests upon “a particular mode of thinking whose method of proof is a specific juridical logic and whose focus of interest is the normative guidance of human social life.” Politically, Catholicism rests upon a chain of personal representation stretching from the present Vicar of Christ back in an unbroken line to Christ himself. The apostolic succession, whose occupants stand at every stage in personam Christi, is both a chain of office-holding and literally a living tradition. Possessed of this dual bureaucratic and personal nature, embodied in a kind of hypostatic union, the Church alone is capable of adjusting principle to the signs of the times without abandoning continuity of political identity. The living chain to the past gives the Church a unique vocation as a guardian of memory, as I have elaborated elsewhere.

In the second appearance of the phrase, Schmitt expands upon the necessary enmity between technical rationality and tradition:

Intelligence and rationalism are not in themselves revolutionary. But technical thinking is foreign to all social traditions: the machine has no tradition. One of Karl Marx’s seminal sociological discoveries is that technology is the true revolutionary principle, beside which all revolutions based on natural law are antiquated forms of recreation. A society built exclusively on progressive technology would thus be nothing but revolutionary; but it would soon destroy itself and its technology. (Emphasis added).

Here we arrive at the heart of Schmitt’s vision for the future of the Church and its role in a society increasingly dominated by technical rationality. Schmitt’s prediction is that such a society would eventually consume and destroy itself; and a central thesis of the book as a whole is that our liberal-technical society is itself just such a society.

Schmitt is unfortunately vague on the precise mechanisms of self-destruction. But from the larger context of his thought we can extrapolate to fill in the remainder of the picture. The state becomes overrun by rent-seeking interests and a depoliticized managerial politics, while citizens relapse into a kind of apathetic and hedonistic privacy, dominated by consumerism and a consumerist approach to political life. At a certain point, however, the thinness of the regime’s claim to loyalty, and the accelerating pace and increasing burdens of relentless creative destruction, jointly become intolerable. The sheer plasticity and restless liberationism of the regime exceed the populace’s appetite for freedom, and a kind of rebellion against the principles of the regime itself will occur. The populace craves the return of “strong gods” (in R. R. Reno’s phrase) and summons them. It is not impossible to discern the beginnings of such a process in our own era, as Reno indeed does. The economic-technical state ultimately turns out to be self-undermining, because it rests upon a defective psychology and anthropology.

How then to understand the role of the Church in the setting of a society careening towards this endpoint? My suggestion, which is consistent with Schmitt’s vision, but goes beyond what he articulates, is that the Church serves as a kind of ark, whose vocation is to preserve the living tradition of the Verbum Dei amidst the universal deluge of economic-technical decadence, and the eventual self-undermining of the regime.

There are a number of distinct structures or vehicles that are available to carry out the Church’s vocation as a guardian of memory. One is a museum, a static space for unliving or frozen objects. Another is a zoo, a static space for living beings. Museums and zoos have their place and value, but a third and higher vehicle of guardianship is the ark. Unlike a museum, an ark houses living beings, who breed, reproduce, and change over time. Unlike a zoo, an ark does not remain in place, but carries its beings on a journey with a discernible aim, even if that aim is, for the time being, merely survival. The three great arks of Scripture carry the beasts of Creation and the human beings who are their stewards (Genesis 6:14 et seq.); the living presence of Yahweh (Exodus 25:8 et seq.); and—in the form of the Blessed Virgin, identified right at the beginning of the Church’s history as a living and holy ark—the incarnate body of the Son.

Only the Church, on this view, can both preserve the substance of the tradition and yet also avoid rigidity, navigating flexibly hither and yon in order to stay afloat in the flood-tide of modernity. The great theorist of the Church-as-ark is Cardinal Newman, and Newman’s account of the development of doctrine fits smoothly into this overall picture of the Church’s vocation. Development of doctrine is an ongoing series of course corrections in an unstable and periodically stormy environment. These corrections adjust the ark’s direction in the short run in order to carry out the larger enterprise of navigation. As Newman put it, the Church’s course must “change in order to remain the same.”

The ark of tradition must wander far from home; the three arks of Scripture all do so. The ark of Genesis wanders on the waters; the ark of Exodus through the desert; the ark of the Gospels, Mary, through political danger and turmoil. This wandering is best understood not as a doom for the Church, so much as a providential trial and a precondition for the ultimate fulfillment of its vocation. In a startling echo of Joseph de Maistre’s claim that the providential aim of the French Revolution was to ensure the ultimate supremacy of the Church, Schmitt suggests that the spread of economic-technical society, and the conflict between economic and juridical rationality, will sharpen oppositions and drive out vague, compromised, and intermediate forms. All this will work to the benefit of the Church, which will be the only genuinely political global entity left standing after the eventual self-immolation of the liberal-technical regime. As Schmitt puts it:

Should economic thinking succeed in realizing its utopian goal and in bringing about an absolutely unpolitical condition of human society, the Church would remain the only agency of political thinking and political form. Then the Church would have a stupendous monopoly: its hierarchy would be nearer the political domination of the world than in the Middle Ages.

In this way, the economic-technical society may bring about the end of history after all, but that end, far from finally conquering the “irrationalism” of the Church, will actually tend to confirm the triumph of the Church’s alternate form of rationalism. In that way the end of history will hardly resemble what its liberal-technical proponents imagine.  

Adrian Vermeule is Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. He tweets at avermeule.

Posted: November 19, 2017

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