By Kathleen Curran Sweeney TFebruary 19th, Categories: Christianity , Culture , Modernity , Philosophy In Western society we are so immersed in and surrounded by the philosophy of modernism, that many are hardly aware of it. Modernism may present itself in various forms. Most recently, some aspects of it seem to have appeared among clergy in the Vatican. His reflection about the temporal and eternal and the Judeo-Christian view of history are the context within which he considers modernism. The de-Christianization of Europe profoundly troubled the French poet and essayist, Charles Peguy

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Before long, independent investigators would discover that his conviction was wrongful, and that Dreyfus had been framed by means of forged documents. The anti-Dreyfusards were therefore the party of loyalty to God and country, and one more than willing to offer up the Captain as a scapegoat for the sins of the recent past.

And the first duty of a people is not. The short-term success and long-term failure of the anti-Dreyfusards to win out against the facts would have great, even longer-term consequences.

With many other Dreyfusards, he was a socialist, a proponent of the Republic, and an opponent of anti-Semitism. But his socialism did not derive from Marxist, or what we would call neo-liberal globalist, convictions; it was not anti-national, but nationalist indeed. It was internationalist, he argued, only in the sense that he believed in the good of the nation and of other nations. If socialism was a religion of temporal salvation, it was not, he insisted, a secular cult intended to replace genuine Christianity.

His Dreyfusard convictions sprang specifically from his Christian vision that Christ had sacrificed himself in our stead and so, to sacrifice another, was to cancel out the heroism of the cross. Every true civic love is a mystique, a term we may define in a number of ways. A mystique is a general disposition of pietas to any fundamental principle, Catholicism, republicanism, monarchism, and so on.

It is an ethos, a whole sensibility, a way of seeing the world, ordered by devotion to a principle whose final test is that one would willingly die for its sake. Christianity, as a religion, is a mystique, but not all mystiques are religions proper; they do, however, make claims upon our loyalties the way religions do. The mystique of the Dreyfusards had been noble, coherent, formidable, patriotic, and courageous.

As such, it could tolerate engagement with its opponents equally committed to their own mystique. But every mystique calcifies, hardens over time to a politique. But a politique is not just policy, but the degradation of mystique to merely practical policy and the further corruption of policy to power.

Once this occurs, mutual reverence and respect is impossible. This is what had gone wrong with the Dreyfusards of France. In our day, it reminds one of the various books decrying the failure of conservatism; in both cases, we are belatedly instructed, the movement goes wrong just at the moment its ideals actually almost accomplish something practical—a rather doubtful lesson for the enterprise of political life, which is of necessity the art of the possible.

This was, in part, because Maritain saw well—as all disciples of St. Thomas must—that the will is seated within the intellect, and so to scorn the reason for the sake of embracing the heart more ardently is folly indeed and misunderstands human nature. The asymmetry between spirit and letter is true of all things, not just religion. Human social life consists primarily of shared devotions and only secondarily of procedures and policies.

When love withers to mere program, decadence and corruption ensues. Moreover, a mystique is a pietas toward our principles, a love that gives organic form, gives wholeness and shape, to a way of life. In brief, mystique is, among other things, a helpful term for describing the great political vision expressed by Saint Augustine, long ago, that the earthly city is created and ordered by whatever it most loves.

History is the stuff of time, it passes, and it must or it would not be history; but Clio, history herself as it were, is immortal, beyond time, and everlasting. In a word, to found or create is to bring the eternal into time and to give it being there so that we are living within and through the divine, each moment a revelation of something beyond time.

Christianity is often said to have relativized the cosmos, to have disenchanted it insofar as we see things as good, but as merely created goods, brought into being by the hand of God as Joseph Ratzinger contends in In the Beginning, for instance.

The prototype and fulfillment of every temporal city lies in the civitas dei. Conversely, the pietas we rightly have for the City of God may and indeed should rightly coexist with a piety for the city that exists within history. The pagan pietas for the earthly city, with its divine and eternal core, is not overturned but rather fulfilled through the entrance of God into the drama of history and the super-elevation of the city, in the Church, to the eternal.

Our pietas to God and to his City are not competing loves, but one love. From this perspective, the secularization or de-Christianization of the modern world is revealed not as a return to pagan superstition, a reassertion of strong, but immanent and pluralized gods, after the breakdown of Christian monotheism, but as the simple loss of the capacity to see history as a meaningful, organic whole.

A world could still be Christian and sinful; but the modern age has abandoned sin and sanctity alike. A classic account of political life in the Christian humanist tradition is found in T. History, left to itself, is circular and endless to the point of being meaningless and nauseous. Only when the divine order pierces the otherwise closed circle do we discover that this circle of time is part of an intended, eternal pattern shaped by the hand of God and meant to lead us beyond time to our destiny and our salvation.

The political order is legitimate of itself, but of merely temporal significance. When Becket is tempted by the barons of England, whom Eliot models on the Nazis and fascists and other nationalist movements of his day, his response is categorical; the political has its place, but the Church is where all meaning and purpose is situated. All things temporal are empty except insofar as they come to signify in the light of the Church. Becket sends the barons packing with instant contempt.

Eliot later speculated that the age of the nation state was of recent vintage and its system was unlikely long to continue. There is little in the vast space between the self and God for the soul to love. Christianity envisions the true, eternal city, and a Christian society will be one ordered to it. That is the true mystique. But, because eternity enters time with every founding, because every temporal creation takes its place among the eternal realities henceforth, we may envision our lives as consisting of devotion, of pietas, to a great hierarchy of cities, from the heavenly to the earthly.

Nothing will be forsaken, but rather everything redeemed, through the historical action of Christianity. Eliot believed that a reawakening of the mystique of the Church was all that was needed. Our love for God may be the sole absolute, but from it is suspended a chain of historical realities that play a role in our lives and merit our pietas. Allow me to offer still another comparison. Psichari was the grandson of the atheist and positivist French writer, Ernest Renan.

In the years spent passing between the poles of unbelief and reception into the Church, Psichari served as an officer in the French military in North Africa and cultivated a mysticism of the army, about which he wrote in several books. For the Maritains, these books of military asceticism and contemplation mark merely a transition, as their friend journeys with difficulty from the secular to the divine; once he has at last been received into the Church, all his writings on the army were superannuated and left behind.

Nothing needs to be left behind en route, because the God of eternity is also the lord of history, and every moment of time takes its place in the great unfolding map of eternity. We may have multiple mysticisms, because multiple things in history have claims on our devotion. He anticipates, rather, the political thought of Pierre Manent who, not incidentally, introduces this volume , the leading interpreter of the nation state as the Christian political form par excellence.

No dimension of our lives should be reduced to the provisional or the useful, to mere politique; the richest lives will be those that recognize an order of love, or loves, that in turn gives order to our lives. Nature hates a vacuum, and if modern civic life does not fill itself with a range of sound mystiques others, more dark, will make an entrance.

That is the tale of the last century and may yet prove the story of the present one. The great contemporary theorist of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, once opined that nationalism has been a force of great imaginative power , but one mostly lacking in theoretical insight by its exponents. We require even now his passionate rhetoric to understand how crippling and dangerous it is for civic life to be reduced to a politique and also to catch a glimpse of how our familial, temporal, and eternal commitments must remain in closer and more permanent relation than even the other great voices of the Christian humanist tradition have recognized.

Nature hates a vacuum, and if modern civic life does not fill itself with a range of sound mystiques, others, more dark, will make an entrance. Share this Classic.


Just Before the Return of the Strong Gods: On Charles Péguy’s Temporal and Eternal

The First World War was but a few months old. He has a way of defying summarization, and so too do his poems. There is much too much between the lines, in the meandering prose, in the life. He was convinced that his generation was the last of the real republicans, whom he traced backward with an impracticable, zigzagging line from to to the first breath of the first revolution. He bound himself to the event tightly and inexorably, and refused to relinquish it. Only, he had not done anything wrong. The evidence had been falsified, and the anti-Semitic animus of the act poorly concealed.


Charles Peguy on the Hubris of Modernism



Charles Péguy


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