Posted: March 12, 2004
Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Common Good is an admirable Festschrift to Fr. Francis Canavan, professor emeritus at Fordham University and one of the wisest students of liberalism and its discontents. The author of six books and nearly 150 articles, he is perhaps best known for his graceful studies of Edmund Burke (The Political Reason of Edmund Burke, 1960; Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence, 1987; The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought, 1995) and for his brilliant critique of free-speech jurisprudence (Freedom of Expression: Purpose as Limit, 1984). Two collections of his best shorter commentaries on religion, law, and morals (Pins in the Liberal Balloon, 1990, and The Pluralist Game: Pluralism, Liberalism, and the Moral Conscience, 1995) chronicle the degeneration of natural rights into a regime of mere permissiveness.
Editors Kenneth L. Grasso and Robert P. Hunt, both former students of Canavan, have done their work well. In addition to their concise introductory essay ("The Achievement of Francis Canavan") and a helpful bibliography of Canavan's work, each contributes a chapter of his own, drawing on central themes in their teacher's work: "Catholicism, Liberalism, and Religious Liberty" (Hunt) and "The Triumph of Will: Rights Mania, the Culture of Death, and the Crisis of Enlightenment Liberalism" (Grasso).
Three noted Burke scholars confirm the continuing vitality of Burke's thought, while George McKenna asks, "Can Liberalism Cast Out Liberalism?" There are essays, as well, on Aristotelian virtue, Catholic social thought, the "new" natural law theory, the modern jurisprudence of marriage, and the continuing deconstruction of constitutional law. Harry V. Jaffa's "The False Prophets of American Conservatism" may be found here, along with original contributions by, among others, Gerard V. Bradley, Thomas A. Spragens, Jr., George W. Carey, and Hadley Arkes. James V. Schall, S.J., concludes the volume with an affectionate tribute to and summary of Fr. Canavan's accomplishments.
The burden of Canavan's Burke scholarship has been to rescue that worthy gentleman from categorical labels that, with varying degrees of plausibility, have confined his reputation: Burke as orthodox Lockean; Burke as opportunistic Whig; Burke as reactionary; Burke as historicist. One would come closer to the mark, Fr. Canavan has argued, by taking seriously Sir Ernest Barker's observation that Burke had "a Catholic cast of thought."
By that is meant not that Burke was some sort of closet Romanist. The suggestion, rather, is that at its deepest level, Burke's thought shows a remarkable sympathy for certain ideas that received their most profound articulation within the tradition of Catholic philosophical speculation. First among these is the proposition that the world God made was "not an arbitrary production of mere will but a participation in the intelligibility of its Creator." At the core of Burke's thought, Canavan continues, is the understanding that man could "arrive at some grasp of the structure of reality and could rise from it to a knowledge of God and of the moral law that He had built into human nature."
In our own time, that understanding is almost exclusively associated with Roman Catholicism, but in Burke's day it was the common coin of the more traditional Protestant sects as well, including Burke's own Anglican communion. The Deists, it will be observed, also subscribed to the doctrines of creation, providence, the moral law, and a future state of rewards and punishments, albeit on the ground of natural reason alone; but Burke, on Canavan's view, doubted whether these propositions could be sustained without reliance on divine revelation. Burke's religious sensibilities, he says, are central to his thought.
It is true that Burke never systematically set forth the ground of his metaphysics, giving rise to the argument, as one critic put it, that he was "uninterested in the workings of the Divine power." It would certainly be more convenient had Burke provided us with a treatise on the origins of and the justification for the first principles of government. But he was, as Canavan reminds us, a practicing politician, not a political philosopher. His first principles must be teased, so to speak, from rhetorical and polemical commentaries that are bound to dissatisfy those who hunger for more explicit and methodical elaboration. Even so, Canavan argues, quoting Burke himself, those principles are "not impossible to be discerned" and, once discerned, confirm the acuity of Barker's intuition. "[T]he ultimate premises of Burke's political thought," Canavan concludes, "are provided by the metaphysics of a created universe." He continues:
They assume the superiority of reason or intellect to will in both God and man. Part of this universe is the natural moral order based on the nature of man as created by God. Man's nature is oriented by creation to ends that may be globally described as its natural perfection. Since civil society is necessary to the attainment of that perfection, it too is natural and willed by God.
The authority of the state derives from the rational and moral ends that it is intended by nature to serve. Consent plays a role in the formation of the state and the conferral of its authority on government, since both involve human acts of choice. But the obligation to form a civil society is prior to consent, and for those born under a constitution, consent to the constitution is commanded by the previous obligation to obey a government that is adequately serving the natural goals of society. Rights also play a part in Burke's political theory. But the basic political right is the right to be governed well, not the right to govern oneself. In Burke's thought, purpose and obligations are more fundamental than rights and consent.
Fr. Canavan's observations about Burke, he would be the first to admit, are unlikely to settle long-standing scholarly disputations. But they introduce—reintroduce would be a better word—considerations that have been too casually dismissed by otherwise thoughtful students of the great man's life. In his painstaking articulation of the religious lineage of Burke's thought, Canavan has made a case that all serious Burke students will now have to contend with; he has also reminded us that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in modern scholarship.
Of particular interest to students of the American regime are Fr. Canavan's cogent analyses of liberalism's descent into diverse forms of relativism and nihilism, a subject on which few have written with greater clarity or deeper insight. His principal concern, set forth in arguments at once Catholic in inspiration and catholic in appeal, is the rejection of natural right and the consequent reduction of man considered as res sacra homo to a being who, above all else, seeks to satisfy his appetites. The resulting vision of civil society, Canavan once remarked in a compelling metaphor, resembles nothing so much as a herd of porcupines, each bristling with rights.
This was hardly the vision presented at the dawn of the liberal era. Whatever its theoretical defects, liberalism offered the prospect of social harmony premised on the emancipation of individual rights. Once freed from the bondage of religious and political authority, it was argued, man's decent instincts, secured by a regime of liberty and equality, would flourish. But liberalism made no provision to ensure that the better angels of man's nature would prevail. Worse, by denying legitimacy to the moral principles that might distinguish liberty from license or virtue from vice, it helped to ensure the very opposite. In Fr. Canavan's recounting, the error was bred in the bone from the beginning. Liberalism's success, especially in its noblest expression, the American Founding, depended decisively on the moral capital of the pre-modern era. Now that stock has been depleted, and the question is whether liberalism is capable of replenishing it. Canavan's answer is an emphatic no—unless liberalism reaches outside itself to acknowledge the necessity of moral virtue to a free society.
This theme unifies the two volumes of collected writings noted above. The essays contained in The Pluralist Game may rightly take their place among the best commentaries on the contemporary American predicament. Although written over the course of four decades, they remain fresh and compelling. The thoughtful student who wishes to know how and why the First Amendment has been transmogrified into a charter of moral autonomism will find no better discussion of the subject. The essay from which the book's title takes its name is alone worth the price of admission. In a mere 17 pages, Canavan provides more valuable insight on the intersection of contemporary law and philosophy than can be found in multiple volumes of ostensibly learned legal commentary.
Pins in the Liberal Balloon is a collection of short pieces, each about 1,000 words, that originally appeared in the late James P. McFadden's engaging newsletter, catholic eye. Every one of them is a perfect gem: concise, focused, eloquent, endlessly quotable. Some address specifically Catholic topics, but most have much broader appeal. If you knew nothing else about Fr. Canavan other than these tightly written, elegant essays, you would know at once that you were in the company of great learning lightly borne, made all the more appealing by gentle wit and natural piety. This, clearly, is a man you would wish to know, for the betterment of your soul no less than of your mind.