touchstone archives


Piquant excerpts lifted from Touchstone editors' own reading & listening.

Topic: Society

Now, while the problem glared out at the world in those symptoms [of evil], and while the symptoms were and remain terrible, none of that alters the hard fact that if you throw all of your energies into a struggle to better the symptoms, to change nothing more basic or more causal than those symptoms, the general deterioration will continue. In fact, more and still more symptoms will arise to harass you and the people for whom you intended to be an apostle.

Moreover, while you continue to expend all your energies on material symptoms, even with the purest intentions in the world, you will probably cease to be an apostle at all; almost necessarily, you will become what you are doing. If the material symptom that inflamed you with a desire to help is social degradation, you will become a sociologist. If poor housing becomes your mission field, you will become a building contractor or a lawyer. Political oppression will make a guerrilla or a politician of you. But none of it will make you an apostle; or a Jesuit; or a Catholic; or a Christian.

Malachi Martin
"On Fire to Build Man's World" in The Jesuits (1987)

Society Commonplaces #1 July/August 2020

Inquisition as such, that is, apart from methods and severity of results, has remained a live institution. The many dictatorships of the twentieth century have relied on it, and in free countries it thrives ad hoc—hunting down German sympathizers during the First World War, interning Japanese-Americans during the Second, and pursuing Communist fellow-travelers during the Cold War. In the United States at the present time the workings of "political correctness" in universities and the speech police that punishes persons and corporations for words on certain topics quaintly called "sensitive" are manifestations of the permanent spirit of inquisition.

Jacques Barzun
From Dawn to Decadence (2000)

Society Commonplaces #3 July/August 2020

There is a twofold liberty, natural (I mean as our nature is now corrupt) and civil or federal. The first is common to man with beasts and other creatures. By this, man, as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority. The exercise and maintaining of this liberty makes men grow more evil and in time to be worse than brute beasts: omnes sumus licentia deteriores. This is that great enemy of truth and peace, that wild beast, which all of the ordinances of God are bent against, to restrain and subdue it.

The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal; it may also be termed moral, in reference to the covenant between God and man, in the moral law, and the politic covenants and constitutions amongst men themselves. This liberty is the proper end and object of authority and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard (not only of your goods, but) of your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this is not authority but a distemper thereof. This liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority; it is of the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.

John Winthrop
On Liberty (1645)

Society Commonplaces #7 May/June 2020

As neurologist-psychologist Erwin Straus once wrote, the truth that "only with eyes can we see" does not mean that we see with the eyes. On the contrary, it is the person, that unified living being, who sees. "Seeing is," as Straus put it, "located neither in the eye nor in the retina, nor in the optic nerve . . . the brain does not see." It is the person who sees. For certain limited purposes, we may think of or reduce the embodied person to a collection of parts, thinking of the person (from below, as it were) simply as the sum total of those parts. But we do not know either ourselves or others that way.

Gilbert Meilaender
"The Giving and Taking of Organs," First Things (March 2008)

Society Commonplaces #11 May/June 2020

Because the outlook of progressives was based on the idea of a liberated future, there was no way to disagree with them without appearing to oppose what was decent and humane. To criticize the radical project placed one in opposition to a world in which social justice and harmony would prevail. . . . Surveying the recent past, I pointed out that socialists had contrived to demonstrate by bloody example what everyone else already knew: Equality and freedom are inherently in conflict. This was really all that socialist efforts had shown, over the dead bodies of millions of people.

In talent, intelligence, and physical attributes, individuals were by nature different and unequal; consequently, the attempt to make them equal could only be achieved by restricting—ultimately eliminating—their individual freedom. For the same reason, economic redistribution could be carried out only by force.

David Horowitz
Radical Son, Part 7, "Coming Home" (1997)

Society Commonplaces #15 March/April 2020

Envy has been said to be pure evil because it wishes to deprive others even though we gain nothing for ourselves. That is not quite the case. The political action [Christopher] Lasch called for results in redistribution. It may be that academic intellectuals would gain only the satisfaction of seeing the better-off lessened, but there are many classes of people who will receive income that is transferred to them from the wealthy through government. For such folks, the emotion of envy is reinforced by cupidity. . . . Helmut Schoeck states:

Since the end of the Second World War, however, a new "ethic" has, astonishingly, come into being, according to which the envious man is altogether acceptable. Progressively fewer individuals and groups are ashamed of their envy, but instead make out that its existence in their temperaments axiomatically proves the existence of "social injustice," which must be eliminated for their benefit. Suddenly it has become possible to say, without loss of public credibility and trust, "I envy you. Give me what you've got." This public self-justification of envy is something entirely new. In this sense it is possible to speak of the age of envy. [Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, 1979, p. 179]

. . . The desire for equality of incomes or wealth is, of course, but one aspect of a more general desire for equality in such matters as social and cultural status. "The essence of the moral idea of socialism," historian Martin Malia wrote [in The National Interest, Spring 1993], "is that human equality is the supreme value in life." Socialism is thus merely the manifestation in the field of economic organization of a more general yearning that operates across the entire culture.

Robert H. Bork
Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1996, pp. 69f)

Society Commonplaces #18 March/April 2020

Evil preaches tolerance until it is dominant; then it tries to silence good.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
(ca. 2009)

Society Commonplaces #20 Jan/Feb 2020

Civilization is a spiritual labor, an openness to revelation, a venture of faith subsisting to a great degree on things no more substantial than myths and visions and prophetic dreams; thus it can be destroyed not only by invading armies or economic collapse, but also by simple disenchantment.

David B. Hart
"Future Tense IV, America & the Angels of Sacré-Cœur," from The New Criterion (December 2011)

Society Commonplaces #33 Sept/Oct 2019

The Master said, the good man does not grieve that other people do not recognize his merits. His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognize theirs.


Society Commonplaces #36 Sept/Oct 2019

Hitler has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won't do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin's militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, has said to people, "I offer you a good time," Hitler has said to them, "I offer you struggle, danger and death," and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

George Orwell
from his 1940 review of Mein Kampf

Society Commonplaces #37 Sept/Oct 2019

When psychoanalysis frees a patient from the tyranny of his inner compulsions, it gives him a power that is not otherwise his. . . . This ultimate technology aims at increasing the range of choice. Yet, without a parallel range of god-terms from which choices may be derived and ordered, choice itself becomes a matter of indifference, or man will become a glutton, choosing everything. There is no feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen. After all, one does not really choose; one is chosen. . . . What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely that sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take their subsequent choices seriously. Put in another way, this means: Freedom does not exist without responsibility.

Philip Rieff
The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1961)

Society Commonplaces #40 July/Aug 2019

The Roman Empire is luxurious, but it is filled with misery. It is dying but it laughs.

(5th century)

Society Commonplaces #41 July/Aug 2019

Yes,” she went on, “you have got to thank me that you are so poor, Peter. I have seen to that, and it has done well for both you and me, my friend. Things come to the poor that can’t get to the door of the rich. Their money somehow blocks it up. It is a great privilege to be poor, Peter—one that no man ever coveted, and but a very few have sought to retain, but one that yet many have learned to prize. You must not mistake, however, and imagine it a virtue; it is but a privilege, and one also that, like other privileges, may be terribly misused.”

George MacDonald
The Princess and Curdie (1883)

Society Commonplaces #42 July/Aug 2019

Money occupies the same place in modern society that God occupied in medieval society, as a kind of abstract guarantor of values that confers worth on different things and on different people.

William T. Cavanaugh

Society Commonplaces #43 July/Aug 2019

Charles Williams speaks as if [John Milton’s] Comus were of immediate and vital importance to himself and every member of the audience, and needs urgently to be discussed and understood. . . . But he also understands the students’ resistance, their scepticism, their doubts. Comus, he explains, is about chastity, a virtue undervalued in the present age, but of utmost importance, which we may choose to reject—that is our right—but which must first be understood. In the ancient world, he tells them, chastity was not merely abstinence. It was spiritual power. His hearers are spellbound.

Grevel Lindop
prologue to Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (2015)

Society Commonplaces #44 July/Aug 2019

Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving. . . . Normally, the rise and fall of great nations are due to internal reasons alone. Ten generations of human beings suffice to transform the hardy and enterprising pioneer into the captious citizen of the welfare state.

Sir John Glubb
The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival (1977)

Society Commonplaces #45 July/Aug 2019

The Declaration of the Rights of Man [France, 1789] could only provide a positive principle for social reconstruction if it was based upon a true conception of Man himself. That of the revolutionaries is well-known: they perceived in Man nothing but abstract individuality, a rational being destitute of all positive content.

I do not propose to unmask the internal contradictions of this revolutionary individualism nor to show how this abstract "Man" was suddenly transformed into the no less abstract "Citizen," how the free sovereign individual found himself doomed to be the defenseless slave and victim of the absolute State or "Nation," that is to say, of a group of obscure persons borne to the surface of public life by the eddies of revolution and rendered the more ferocious by the consciousness of their own intrinsic nonentity.

Vladimir Solovyev
Russia and the Universal Church,
Introduction (trans. Herbert Rees; 1948)

Society Commonplaces #48 May/June 2019

Theory [the hyper-modernist intellectual movement active in the universities] holds that objective knowledge—that which is true for everyone, regardless of their identity—is unobtainable, because knowledge is always bound up with cultural values. This is the postmodern knowledge principle. For Theory, the knowledge that is currently most valued is intrinsically white and Western, and it interprets this as an injustice—no matter how reliably that knowledge was produced. This is the postmodern political principle. . . .

Throughout even the most recent applications of Theory, then, we see radical skepticism that knowledge can be objectively, universally, or neutrally true. This leads to a belief that rigor and completeness come not from good methodology, skepticism, and evidence, but from identity-based "standpoints" and multiple "ways of knowing." That such an approach doesn't tend to work is considered unimportant because it is deemed to be more just. That is, this belief proceeds from an ought that is not necessarily concerned about what is.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Critical Cynical Theories (Pickstone, 2020), 79.

Society Commonplaces #82 May/June 2021

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds, but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

Philip K. Dick
1978 lecture

Society Commonplaces #95 July/August 2021

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn't become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there's no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

Alan Jacobs
Snakes and Ladders blog (June 26, 2017)

Society Commonplaces #96 Sept/Oct 2021

[T]he art of prostration was growing there in exact ratio to the increasing efficiency of first Lenin's, then Stalin's political police, and the successful Soviet writer was the one whose fine ear caught the soft whisper of an official suggestion long before it had become a blare.

Vladimir Nabokov
Speak, Memory (1966)

Society Commonplaces #107 Nov/Dec 2021

Utopian endeavors inevitably produce totalitarian results. Trying to build a perfect society out of imperfect people is more daunting than the Labors of Hercules. Usually sooner rather than later, those in charge start reforming people by killing them. So the simple formula is:
utopia + time (a variable)  = dystopia.

Nelson L. Dawson
Democracy Betrayed (Algora Publishing, 2020)

Society Commonplaces #110 Nov/Dec 2021

[L]ife is responsibility: wealth is responsibility, noble birth is responsibility, power is responsibility, marriage is responsibility—all the circumstances of life demand order, self-discipline, courage, insight and discretion, industry. And only through a right, living relation to God can men gain strength to live rightly.

Sigrid Undset
Stages on the Road (1934)

society Commonplaces #150 Nov/Dec 2022

The majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith; and when the ordinary man calls himself a sceptic or an unbeliever, that is ordinarily a simple pose, cloaking a disinclination to think anything out to a conclusion.

T. S. Eliot
Introduction to Pascal’s Pensées

society Commonplaces #151 Nov/Dec 2022

What is so striking and particular about the woke culture is that it is using the language of Christendom but with a different goal. In a subtle and subversive way it intends to restore the priority of the primacy of power. It uses victimhood as a way of both bolstering up relativism and stripping moral authority away from objective truth and Christian ethical values. . . .

But it also poses an important theological challenge to the Church. A whole culture has been built on the sanctification of victimhood. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross [takes] weakness and brokenness that flow from the vulnerability of Love and uses [them] to provide freedom and forgiveness from guilt and moral condemnation. But when “victimhood” is detached from Jesus and used as a means to a different end, used instead to claim moral high ground but with the intention not of freeing and forgiving but of displacing and condemning, something different and terrible is happening. We should become more alert to the danger of the corruption of our own language and values and not [be] taken in by appearances. Not all victimhood is virtuous.

We should do more than accept its currency at face value, asking instead what the concept is being used for. Is it rooted in sacrifice and mercy, a process in which pain and suffering are offered transformatively, producing forgiveness and compassion flowing from a voluntary acceptance of suffering to bring good to another? This is the Christian model. Or is it being used as a means of blackmailing an opponent who caused pain and damage and [as] ethical leverage to exercise a moral power that is intended to produce revenge or reparation for some kind of physical, sexual or political abuse? A means, in other words, of exchanging one kind of power for another.

The differences between these two kinds of suffering depend firstly upon whether the victim is willing to forgive and secondly [on] what the outcome is intended to be. The competition for the allegiance of our culture is no longer the straightforward choice between power and compassion, Nietzsche and Jesus. Our opponents have become more subtle and have clothed their will for power and revenge in the trappings of love and compassion. We need to exercise discernment and intelligent discrimination to tell the difference.

Gavin Ashenden
“Coercive Victimhood—The Trojan Horse of Cultural Change,” The Catholic Herald (July 26, 2022)

society Commonplaces #153 Nov/Dec 2022

by Topic

All content © The Fellowship of St. James — 2023. All rights reserved.
Returns, refunds, and privacy policy.