For those who are interested, I include below the preliminary table of chapter contents for my (as yet unwritten) book, The Creation Project. Along with essays relevant to each chapter. More to come.
1/ Introduction: An Immodest Proposal for Immodest Times
Chapter 1 of The Creation Project establishes the foundation premises of the book: that anthropogenic climate change, breaching inequality, toxically “illiberal” nationalism, and generational abandonment have scaled our risks as a species to a level well beyond the scope of our thinking about these problems. Indeed, the norms of engagement we fall back on in our responses to garden-variety social disruption – parties, policies, procedures, and participation – now actively threaten to worsen the crisis.
The chapter presents a simple methodology for conceptualizing risk vertically, identifying different levels of risk that require different cognitive perspectives, tables of values, and conceptions of time. The introduction also uses this perspective on risk to develop a philosophical framework for understanding underlying intellectual and cognitive foundations of the present crisis, specifically with reference to the influence of the Catholic-Thomist philosophy of natural law.
Part One – Dark Enlightenment
2 / Which “Tea Party?”: The Intellectual Source Code of the Trump Movement
Chapter 2 of The Creation Project traverses and maps the altered landscape / dreamscape into which the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump swept the United States and the rest of the world. The reader travels on a subterranean journey disclosing the pre-Enlightenment sources of the Trump phenomenon, with its ensuing cognition confusion and emotional chaos, and lingering uncertainty about whether the “populist” Tea Party political movement a reprise of the Boston Tea Party that launched the American Revolution or of the Oxford Tea Party associated with topsy-turvy shenanigans of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland.
The chapter emphasizes that the Republican Party did not magically seize power. Trump’s election is only the latest – if most surreal – chapter of a slow-motion political creep on to land of a hyper-conservative Republican sea monster, organized and funded by hyper-wealthy, Heartland industrialists and coastal financiers. The emergence of the Tea Party movement, however, exposes the significance of a nearly thousand-year-old intellectual and philosophical natural law tradition carried through the centuries by the Catholic Church. This chapter also explores these surprising connections between the Tea Party insurgency and the radical traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church.
3/ Catholic Foundations of American Conservative Thought
Chapter 3 of The Creation Project builds an architecture of assumptions, scaled to the existential stakes of our current moment in time, that helps us to pull free of the Steve Bannon / Donald Trump force field. When we view Bannon and Trump as messenger, not message, we can more clearly assess the remarkable influence of idea-driven institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, around and through which American political conservatism has built itself into the dominant force in contemporary American politics.
The American Tea Party and its super-wealthy backers have achieved a far greater political influence, at every level and in every branch of government, than what one would predict based on their numbers, sophistication, knowledge, and experience. Catholic-powered ideas about natural law provide the most enduring and consistent thread of thought at the most high-profile and well-funded conservative think tanks and foundations, in part because natural law has long (for nearly a millennium!) functioned as the bridge for Catholic intellectuals of moral philosophy and positive law. As the leading philosopher of Thomist natural law on the American political scene, Princeton’s Robert George most clearly articulates and contains within himself the distilled message and the intellectual contradictions of these institutions.
4 / Imago Dei: Robby George’s Primer on Natural Law
Chapter 4 of The Creation Project explores the political and philosophical significance of Donald Trump’s statement, in his September 2017 address to the United Nations General Assembly, that “strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.” For American conservatives, each word of this sentence possesses clear and specific meaning, interlaced with the precepts of Thomist-Catholic natural law moral philosophy and the predicates of freedom associated with the idea of Western Civilization. To illustrate, this chapter examines in detail Princeton professor Robert George’s 2007 speech before the Harvard Law School entitled, Natural Law, with specific attention to the glossary of concepts most integral to natural law philosophy: human flourishing; practical reason; nature and reason; imago Dei; creator; creation; human dignity; character and virtue; promethean individuality; self-evidence; and causation.
The chapter emphasizes two major themes of The Creation Project. First, natural law philosophy both absorbs (from revelation and scripture) and communicates (into public discourse and legal practice) a quite specific understanding of the human individual as the summit of God’s creation, shaped in the image of God himself. The vocabulary of natural law philosophy organizes itself around this concept of the imago Dei, the idea that human individuals with distinct souls were created in the image of God and possess in their capacity to reason and act as free agents a spark of divinity denied to the rest of God’s creation.
Second, natural law philosophy originates with the teleological vision of Aristotle, the idea that each creature on earth has its own specific end or purpose, with capacities useful to that particular telos, the fulfillment of which represents a flourishing for that species. For Aristotle, humans are part of the natural world, in no sense qualitatively different from other creatures. However, the concept of the imago Dei, incorporated into natural law philosophy by Thomas Aquinas, genetically imprints a hint or flavor of God in each human soul, irrevocably separating humans from the rest of the natural world and establishing them instead as masters of nature, exercising dominion over its fruits and forces.
5 / The Brutalists: Private Capital’s War on Nature
Chapter 5 of The Creation Project explores affinities and connections between intellectual and business wings of the hard-right Tea Party insurgency. The chapter argues that Donald Trump and his followers in the paleo wing of the Republican Party represent the emotional and intellectual biases of privately owned capital in the United States. These wealthy insurgents are leaders of private equity investment vehicles, privately held industrial and commercial companies, and real estate development companies, all of which pivot politically on antagonism to the encroachments of the state and any conception of public good that in any way infringes on the ability of these entities to make money.
American philosophers of natural law (such as Robert George and others who write for influential journals such as First Things) present themselves as high-minded and objective stewards of political and cultural conservatism, only tangentially related to Donald Trump and his conservative, real-property business brethren. This chapter argues, however, that a “brutalist,” acquisitive, zero-sum sensibility is a significant carrier of cultural meaning for a huge swath of the American public, particularly in rural portions of the nation; in the southern, midwestern, and western states economically dependent on resource extraction. Natural law philosophers share with this sensibility overly simplified and static ideas of the human individual as an imago Dei who possesses promethean, god-like potential to be an uncaused causer, to act on the created world as a creator, as someone immune from the consequences and complications of their acts.
6 / Creeping Coup: How Anti-Statists Seized Control of the State
Chapter 6 of The Creation Project considers whether the 2016 electoral “coup” was a perfect storm of contingent events (and so epiphenomenal and temporary) or an outcome with its own self-replicating internal logic. The chapter chronicles the historic backdrop to the 2016 election, in which the Tea Party (a political movement radically antagonistic to the federal government, and to well-established concepts of public goods and a professional civil service) claimed nearly total control of the instruments of government.
This political transformation has been in many ways the outcome of a slow-motion creep of hard-right electoral advantage nearly 50 years in the making (predating the election of Ronald Reagan). The political and electoral work that occurred in the churches and precincts of the nation’s heartland and rural regions, in tandem with gatherings of the wealthy in American’s gated clubs and communities – purposive organizing and activism on multiple social levels that leveraged and exploited:
• High-stakes business interests and resources of private wealth in the United States; • The emotionally toxic, meth-like agitation of conservative cultural media; • High-minded natural law ideas and principles of conservative intellectuals; and • Electoral, legislative, and judicial feedback loops lock in political advantage for less densely populated, more threadbare, and less racially diverse regions of the nation.
Jane Mayer’s Dark Money brilliantly discloses and analyzes the covert private retreats and funding schemes serving the political goals of America’s wealthiest heirs, industrialists, and financiers. Chapter 6 of The Creation Project emphasizes the work done to mobilize and organize directly America’s white (frequently ethnic and Catholic) middle-class and working-class populations, with a special focus on the 50-year influence of Catholic arch-conservative, Phyllis Schlafly, an enormously influential, unapologetic player in hard-right circles whom Mayer only mentions once in her book.
7 / Law of the Land: The Supreme Court’s Deep Catholic Bench
Chapter 7 of The Creation Project uses the lens of Catholic-Thomist natural law philosophy to explore the mysteries of the legal conservative movement in the United States, to which we can attribute much of the contemporary sclerosis in national government. In the last 30 years, this effort to chain closely together legal reform and political activism under the umbrella of Constitutional fundamentalism has steadily assumed more power and influence in American public life. The chapter chronicles the ascent of legal conservative movement during the years of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts, lovingly midwifed by the Federalist Society and lavishly sustained by astonishing levels of financial support from conservative foundations, think tanks, and business associations.
This chapter also highlights the accelerating importance of natural law moral philosophy in American jurisprudence which in recent decades has accompanied influx on to the bench of conservative Catholic appointees. The goal is to spotlight shifts on the Court toward medievalist religious views and equally hidebound perspectives on constitutional law, both of which epitomize the ontological fundamentalism that currently runs rampant in American political thought.
Part Two – Thomist Millennium: Natural Law and Western Civilization
8 / Summa: One Law to Bring Them All and In the Darkness Bind Them
Chapter 8 of The Creation Project emphasizes how, in the past millennium, the terrestrial power of the Catholic Church has derived from the mediating authority of its practices and institutions. The Church has positioned itself between each human soul and God. The Church is the keymaster of the Stairway to Heaven.
Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica functioned as a text of revelatory magnitude that in similar fashion mediated the relationship of believers to Scripture, particularly concerning terrestrial matters in the City of Man relevant for the exercise of Church power. As a comprehensive (the text contains 4 million words!), fixed, and unchanging perspective on the natural order of the world, the Summa supported consolidation of the Church’s legal and spiritual authority in the 13th century. In subsequent centuries, the Summa served as the basis for the formulation of the enduring architecture of assumptions – the One Law that binds us – that underpin the very idea of Western civilization.
9 / Marginal Revolution: The World Through the Wrong End of the Telescope
Chapter 9 of The Creation Project suggests how the great legal sorting undertaken by the Church to establish an enduring terrestrial presence may teach us more if we focus on what was left out of the final synthesis, rather than what was merely included. Of course, the claim to universality of the Catholic Church was itself a fabrication (as we are learning today in the United States, where and how one builds the walls of a village, or a nation, discloses everything about what a community values and cherishes, and what it fears and loathes).
However, juxtaposition of the core values, beliefs, and practices of the Church with those of groups and communities it shunted to the margins, usefully redirects our attention from the core to the periphery of the most powerful medieval institutions. surfaces the idea of a marginal revolution (in society and in ideas, as well as in markets) by using the wrong end of the telescope to examine the ideas and individuals and movements that remained outside of the Thomist synthesis. While the chapter focuses directly on the Franciscans, particularly Francis of Assisi, Roger Bacon, and William of Ockham, the exploration will extend to consideration of historic Church outliers such as the Gnostics.
10 / Illumination: The Book and the Cathedral
Chapter 10 of The Creation Project explores the visual reality of the European Middle Ages and the daunting challenges this sensory reality presented for the universal aspirations of the Catholic Church. As Keith Thomas wrote in Religion and the Decline of Magic, while officials wanted the faithful to worship their Creator and subject themselves to the Church as the vehicle of their salvation, the immediate, abundant, unmediated reality of the Creation itself would have typically overwhelmed the heavenly appeals.
This rich and dense visual reality of life during the European Middle Ages reflected the direct influence of unmediated natural systems – climate, ecology, geology – that possessed their own mysterious internal causes and external effects. The apparent (or surface) chaos of this natural environment (Creation) challenged the universal governing aspirations of the terrestrial Church. The precepts of Catholic-Thomist natural law interposed an alternative understanding of nature as a hierarchy of capacities (or modes of engaging the created world) conferred by a Creator God, organized by a human species endowed with reason, agency, and free will that (uniquely among species) mirrored on earth the magnificent world-creating, existence-creating powers of God.
Magical thinking absorbed much of this fraught tension between Creator and Creation in traditional societies, but magic was also inimical to the emphasis on logic and reason characteristic of Thomist natural law philosophy. The contradiction helps to explain the 13th-century emergence of the gothic style as a visually rich, vertically built architecture for sacred spaces. Unlike the Romanesque style, Gothic is a spatial architecture that conforms to the existential assumption architecture encoded within the Thomist synthesis. The gothic is an aspirational physical architecture that bridges body and spirit, earth and heaven, Creature and Creator, City of Man and City of God in a manner that fully confirms the mediating authority of the Church.
11 / Abraham’s Children: The Crusades and the Invention of Western Civilization
Chapter 11 of The Creation Project explores the fraught relationship between the medieval Christian Church with both its Abrahamic brethren religions, Judaism and Islam, and with splinter movements within the Church (such as the Cathars). The thesis of this chapter is that the Church did not and could not contain the world. The idea of the West emerged from the Christian experience of engagement with everything that was not-Church, beginning with Charles Martel’s victory over the invading Islamic army in the 7th century Battle of Tours.
While theologians, philosophers, and jurists might subscribe to abstract natural law ideals of humans as the imago Dei, the experienced reality was intensely political and dependent on denials of this universal human status. What the Church could not contain or absorb, it dehumanized and destroyed. And the people who constituted the not-Church – those most at risk of contaminating and infecting the Church, and so most dangerous – were, more often than not, Jews or Muslims, fellow (almost-but-not-quite-Church) descendants of Abraham.
12 / Inquisition: The Body as Text
Chapter 12 of The Creation Project explores the ways in which natural law’s ethical precepts and commitments guided or influence the Catholic Church in the application of canon law to root out heresy, dispel magic, and deport Abrahamic rivals between the 12th and 16th centuries. The chapter emphasizes that philosophies of natural law were helpless to even comprehend, much less counter, the juridically conflagratory underpinnings of Crusades and Inquisitions incepted by Church canon law.
Revealed religion’s reliance on texts to access eternal or fundamental truths obscures the extent to which ritualized ceremonial and judicial practices created a liturgy of their own that inscribes and textualizes the material world. The chapter also explores how the Iberian inquisitions of Jewish conversos and Islamic moriscos during the late Middle Ages “published” the bodies of the accused as texts, inscribed by “genre-like” rituals of forced conversion, expulsion, and torture and confession (illuminated by the fire of the auto-da-fe).
Finally, Chapter 12 presents the lingering historical harms inflicted upon the Iberian Peninsula by these Inquisitional spasms (what we would today call ethnic cleansing). Iberia became a crucible, a compression point for tensions between Christianity and Islam, hardening and brutalizing relations between social classes on the peninsula, which of course culminated during the 20th century in the civil war in Spain (in this respect, Iberia itself becoming a text).
Part Three – Emergence: Anthropogenesis and Self-Organizing Social Systems in Early Modern Europe
13 / Reformation: The Text as Body
Chapter 13 of The Creation Project approaches the Protestant Reformation as a fascinating and preliminary instance of a modern phenomenon – the liberation of content from its form. Indeed, this conception of liberated content is an essential feature of engineered technologies associated with both the industrial and digital revolutions of the modern era (the paradigmatic example perhaps being the use of data tags and data schemes to separate digital content from its HTML). In this sense (without being too anachronistic), we can refer to the liberation of Scripture, and of the entire spiritual journey of the individual soul, from the universal liturgical and legal forms of the Catholic Church, as a disruptive innovation in spiritual technology.
Extending this metaphor of content liberated from form helps us to begin thinking about the social impact of anthropogenesis and the geologic phenomenon of the Anthropocene, specifically with regard to the emergence of self-organizing, complex social systems that characterize the modern world and launched through this liberation of content from its traditional forms: global capitalism, cities, international relations regimes, and memetic systems of information exchange beginning with mechanical reproduction and culminating with the revolution in digital technology. The chapter also considers the non-linear, fraught impact of these transformations on the Catholic Church and on natural law moral philosophy as a (cracked, refracting) mirror of the human search for order.
14 / Ocean Crossing: Empire and the Spaces In Between
Chapter 14 of The Creation Project continues to wrap our minds around this enormously important conceptual shift occurring during the history of early modern Europe (it almost literally was the history of early Modern Europe). In the 16th and 17th centuries, beginning with Martin Luther (standing at the door to church and doing no other), Europeans could for the first time imagine, across all dimensions of existence, content liberated from its carapace, a development we might now associate directly with anthropogenesis and the beginnings in geologic time of the Anthropocene.
This chapter uses the phenomenon of the ocean crossing to “the West” that became so common during the centuries of the Early Modern era to comprehend the multiple levels on which content could liberate itself from fixed forms, ranging from the emerging interior life of individuals confronting directly vernacular Scripture to land empires constructed and organized in relation to unimaginably vast and empty ocean spaces.
In my understanding, the “ocean crossing” also constituted a significant interior moment that required the reimagination of the relationship between time and space. This crossing experience accelerated the development of new conceptions of global capitalism and global empire, enabled by engineered and machined forms of leverage to extract the earth’s resources (content from form) on a scale never before imagined. And, as we shall, to fight wars on a scale never before imagined.
15 / Nation-State: The Stratigraphy of Conflict
Chapter 15 of The Creation Project suggests that European nation-states formed in the context of ocean exploration and imperial competition, and that the state apparatuses that emerged were largely organized to fight wars. At the same time, the creation of national identities and loyalties did not eliminate the parcelized and tribal loyalties of the Middle Ages, and instead constituted a new sedimentary social and political layer that compressed and fractured those more traditional loyalties (today, we might call this compressed and fractured layer “illiberalism).
This chapter spotlights the interplay, then, between layers and domains in which, much as with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, dynamic transformations in one layer or domain engendered corollary (or compensatory) responses in related layers and domains. The model is important because this condition of what we might call geared flux – with ratcheting feedback loops between domains – is characteristic of complex, self-organizing systems, but entirely foreign to the agent-specific logic of Thomist natural law.
We see this new conception of legal identity reflected in the 16th-century and 17th-century development of new concepts of national sovereignty, just war, and the law of nations from (quite theologically radical) Protestant jurists such as Hugo Grotius that, while accepting the Creator-centric focus of revelation-derived natural law, focus on the nation-state, not the individual, as the rational, acting agent.
16 / City: Density, Motion, and Kinesis
Chapter 16 of The Creation Project extends development of the complexity model of modernity through examination of the stunning growth of cities in the 16th and 17th centuries, fueled by both imperial exploration and the emergence of the war-focused nation-state. Cities in this context represented an independently spinning wheel geared in relation to the larger wheels of nation-state and empire.
This chapter emphasizes the incredible dynamism and vitality of early modern cities, the outcome of kinetic energy generated from the intersection of population density and population movement. While the energy and flow of urban environments transcended the agency of specific individuals, these environments also created spaces that preserved anonymity and privacy and allowed the flourishing of a previously unknown interior space for individuals.
17 / Revolution: Science and the Laws of History (Science’s Promethean Adventures)
Chapter 17 of The Creation Project considers the general phenomenon of revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, encompassing science, industry, politics, and culture. My argument is that each of these “types” of revolution shared common features that we can associate with complexity and with anthropogenic emergence. I suppose the counterfactual would be the stillbirth of any of these revolutions in the absence of the Reformation and the Age of Empire, Exploration, and Ocean Crossing, which together multiplied the layers of identity, awareness, and possibility (in directions both inward and outward) and allowed for the recombination of content independently of its historic and customary forms. For this reason, we might add to this list of revolutionary spheres a phenomenological revolution involving awareness of and relationships between time and space.
The chapter folds this general idea – that revolution is a consequence of the liberation of content from its traditional forms – into a tectonic perspective of subductive layers of culture, consciousness, and identity that revolutions, far from concealing or eliminating, can disturb and surface. In a process that is fractal, recursive and endogenous, liberated content can reattach, or return to, original forms brought to the surface because of revolutionary activity itself.
This model provides an abstract framework for understanding historical episodes of illiberalism or revanchism that possess a fundamentally territorial, brutalist, zero-sum animus. Relationships between racial and ethnic groups illustrate this dynamic, in which revolutions that liberate the content of identity (my race) from its form (my relative status and position in society) generate emotionally negative energy from groups historical accustomed to controlling these forms. This subterranean energy simply blows away formal and legal (natural law-derived) conceptions of human similarity and equality – as rational, responsible agents created in God’s image
18 / Grand Subversion: The Spanish Civil War and the End of Thomism
Chapter 18 of The Creation Project closes the second section of the book with reflections on the use and abuse of science to justify and promote fascism, national socialism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The chapter specifically addresses the engineered and instrumented approaches to applied science that one can associate with the zero-sum, extractive, brutalist mentality. The point being that the complex dynamism of this revolutionary era does not preclude reversion to primitive, identity-driven irruptions, for the conditions for these irruptions have never vanished, but only been submerged, and the dramatic tidal shifts of exponentially more complex environments actually creates more opportunities for this type of malefaction (of the Trumpist variety) to slither forth (this condition one that Freud’s notion of cathexis aptly characterizes).
The Spanish Civil War offers the most poignant and powerful example of the potential for extreme polarization these subdural tensions can create, with a very conservative Catholic Church aligned with reactionary landowners and a fascist military against a loose collection of radicalized urban workers and middle-class professionals and intellectuals – the political center of an already geographically fragmented nation having entirely dissolved.
The Spanish Civil War indeed may provide the closest analogy to the situation we face today in the United States, which we might term an “identity crisis” of epic scale that natural law conceptions of reason, selfhood, and agency cannot encompass (calling to mind the identity conundrum of the HBO series, Westworld). The chapter concludes with reference to the 20th-century Thomist philosophical revival in Europe led by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, great Christian Democrats each, and courageous in their own ways, but with a fidelity to Catholic-Thomist natural law philosophy that left them entirely unequipped to grapple with the dark challenges of fascism.
Part Four – American Prophecy: The Bible, The Meme, and the Machine
19 / Law and Myth: The Constitution as Revealed Religion
Chapter 19 of The Creation Project considers the meaning of the American Founding, both at the time and retrospectively in the minds of Constitutional fundamentalists. The chapter emphasizes that the formative history of the American nation is extremely parcelized, with multiple periods and versions of independence declarations and constitutional formulations. No singular, crystalline event exists that originalists and textualists can summon as the definitive founding moment that captures, within a single revelatory text, the intent of a select group of founders. To state otherwise, as of course natural law and Constitutional fundamentalists of the Straussian, Heritage Foundation, and Federalist Society variety routinely do, is to trample not simply the history of the national founding, but the idea of history itself.
The chapter suggests a more accurate perspective would be to emphasize that the American colonies participated in the European Enlightenment. They participated fully, across its political, philosophical, scientific, religious, and artistic dimensions. However, they almost certainly also participated from a peripheral, marginal perspective resulting from their position at the vulnerable and exploited end of the imperial-colonial relationship, complicated by the independent and culturally unique status of each colonies, the endless wilderness to their west, and, of course, the dark shadow of slavery.
20 / Slavery’s Story: Natural Law and Joseph Story
Chapter 20 of The Creation Project examines the extended efforts of Christian conservatives (most recently, Roy Moore of Alabama) to import natural law philosophy into the heart of American jurisprudence via Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (with implicit repudiation of anti-natural lawyer, Oliver Wendell Holmes). Chapter 20 dismisses those claims (which go a long toward dismissing the entire case for embedding natural law within the fabric of American jurisprudence), while repositioning Story in the context of a more incendiary and catastrophic drama, the American Civil War.
Judge Story’s jurisprudence echoed the nationalist orientation of John Marshall, with an emphasis on federal common law protections for national commerce and economic enterprise, the precedence of federal authority over state authority, and a preference for the decisions of judges over state legislatures. In that context, Judge Story’s opinions in three cases involving the slave trade and the fugitive slave laws (La Jeune Eugenie, Amistad, and Prigg) disclose a legal philosophy, Constitutional preferences, and Federalist/Whig political commitments that also align him quite closely with Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln (and against Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Roger Taney, and Stephen Douglas).
Joseph Story’s commitment to the common law abjured the false blandishments of Jacksonian popular sovereignty. At the same time, his affirmation of the contractual foundations of national economic enterprise and private property rights within civil society left unchallenged the protection real property ownership in both territory and slaves that spun the nation toward civil war.
21 / There Will Be Blood: Harvesting the Earth
Chapter 22 of The Creation Project compares the settlement of the West in the United States to the ocean crossing phenomenon in the European age of exploration (down to the image of the prairie schooner). The chapter chronicles in this “prairie” crossing journey a comparable liberation of the spirit, conducive to the emergence of dynamic, complex, nested social systems. If not identical in form to the model of the urbanizing European nation-state, these new social systems set in motion a comparably explosive dynamic predicated on the creative, mutually reinforcing tension between vast, magnificent, resource-rich open spaces and dense, rapidly growing urban metropoles (each of which needs the other and each of which can neither understand nor abide the other).
The chapter thus spotlights the sources and implications of the nation’s emerging antebellum urban-rural divide:
- In which resource extraction in the hinterlands fueled the Industrial Revolution in the cities.
- In which technical and engineering innovation at land grant universities, in corporations, and in private laboratories intersected with banking innovations to create a new science of instrumentation based on the Archimedean principle of leverage.
- In which resource extraction enterprises and industrial processes, pathways, and methods acquired a complexity and assumed a scale that dwarfed individual effort and subsumed individual identity.
- In which legal abstractions such as corporations, and collective bargaining and collective action entities such as labor unions, acquired formal agency and identity.
- In which those individuals and families left behind or outside of these legal entities subsisted in a shadowland of motion and collision activated and governed according to its own imperatives.
- In which a catalog of environmental outcomes that we now call economic externalities – the displaced negative effects of systematic economic activity for which no entity or agent is accountable (e.g., industrial pollution) – befuddled common law tort formulations and eluded legal capture (an instance of what we would now term the troubled relationship between text and context, between liberated content and the legal forms with which it interacts).
In peripheral and sparsely populated agricultural, forest, and mining regions, market imperatives heightened and reinforced the brutalism of engineered and leveraged resource claims upon the body of the earth, which rooted in place a fixed, territorial identity for their inhabitants. In urban industry’s dense cores, by contrast, human capital formed, and reformed again, to produce – despite (or because of) the massing of bodies for repetitive industrial assembly or processing tasks – a cosmopolitan, border-transcending hive sensibility for which “place” was a state of mind.
22 / The Inarticulate Major Premise: Common Law and Oliver Wendell Holmes
Chapter 21 of The Creation Project explores the radically transformative judicial philosophy and jurisprudence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, which entailed specific and sustained repudiation of natural law’s logic and reason on behalf of the common law, with its “inarticulate major premise.” Holmes rejects formalism and accepts the mysteries of the universe (without anchoring them to a Christian God and divine law). He returns us to a condition of contingency and uncertainty that encourages personal exploration of life’s mysteries and meanings. Holmes is also particularly interesting for our purposes because his own personal journey as an adult spans the 70 years from the Civil War through the Great Depression. Like Joseph Story, Oliver Wendell Holmes – iconoclastic destroyer of everything about which he cares – is of great interest to Christian conservatives such as Robert George, who experience in his encounters with Holmes a delicious swill of fascination and aversion.
This chapter focuses on Holmes’s legal philosophy and jurisprudence, which in nearly every respect represent the antipode to natural law, while also pondering nearly every aspect of the revolutionary emergence characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, encompassing:
- the spanning of the territorial United States by a transcontinental railroad network and the “closing” of the frontier;
- the nation’s rapid urban and industrial growth;
- the legal attribution to corporations of personhood; and
- the multiform and recursive subjugation of black Americans (accompanied by the legal dis-attribution of their personhood).
Holmes witnessed each of these spinning gyres and participated in the legal adjudication of their meaning and impact for American life. He lived too long and witnessed and experienced too much suffering to indulge the natural law phantasms that fluttered through the less grounded legal minds of his era.
Of course, in our present anti-statist dispensation it is notable, for someone acclaimed (and damned) as “the American Nietzsche,” that Holmes, who observed that taxes “are the price we pay for civilization,” upon his death willed his estate to the U.S. Treasury.
23 / War’s Empire: Black Jack Pershing and Randolph Bourne
Chapter 23 of The Creation Project pairs Black Jack Pershing (the nation’s second most-revered military leader after George Washington) with Randolph Bourne (whose physically compromised and short-lived body sheltered an exalted mind).
In the Breitbart zeitgeist (the Breitzeit), Pershing and Charles Martel are like Steely Dan (or perhaps like Penn and Teller), a duo beloved by right-wing rapscallions, although not for their virtuosity as musicians or as magicians, but as militaricians with a special talent for “managing” Muslims. Pershing was a career military man most comfortable on the borderland between civilization and barbarity. He embodied the enterprising, transactional brutalism and swag of American imperial ambition (like Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom we might call a scientific imperialist, Pershing was close to Teddy Roosevelt).
Randolph Bourne, by contrast, living largely inside his capacious brain (while his non-capacious body lived most of its short life within the same few square blocks of New York City), formulated some of the most trenchant commentary about immigrants, war, and democracy produced by anyone in America, before or since (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton perhaps serving as the most recent literary creation to rival Bourne’s pith and spirit).
Black Jack Pershing and Randolph Bourne, both hitting their stride in 1917 as the United States military prepared to enter the war in Europe, illustrate the remarkable capacity of this rough-hewn American nation to accommodate (barely) during times of crisis a migration to the more extreme margins of the urban-rural divide. Chapter 23 explores the terrain that both unifies and separates Pershing’s bellicosity and Bourne’s braininess to illustrate the pushmi-pullyu physics of complex social systems.
24 / Southern Strategy: Richard Nixon and George Wallace
Chapter 24 of The Creation Project extends our model of urban-rural complexity to explain the emerging politics of the post-World War II era, in which Southern populists such as George Wallace gained national prominence and a national base of support in small-town and rural America and among ethnic European, largely Catholic, working-class voters in metropolitan regions. Richard Nixon’s famed (and disputed) Southern Strategy was architected partly as a response to the atavistic, primitive appeal of the Wallace message.
The chapter focuses specifically on the surfacing of a hard-right, law-and-order legal movement of the zero-sum, brutalist persuasion personified by Reagan Attorney-General Edwin Meese, one of the early leaders of the Federalist Society and friendly to the Catholic natural law proclivities of originalist Supreme Courts justices such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch (and Reagan-appointed federal circuit court judges such as Diarmuid O’Scannlain).
Themes that clearly emerge in this reconstruction of the legal politics of the two decades spanning the Nixon and Reagan presidencies (with, of course, Ford-Carter interregnum) include:
- Consolidation of the urban-rural and regional divisions that peeled white voters away from the Democratic Party (see Sale, Power Shift, and Kevin Philips, The Emerging Republican Majority for contemporary accounts);
- Development of an “internal sovereignty” and “internal empire” model of national security sanctioned by the memetics of “law and order;”
- Moralization of politics via “welfare queen” and related “Willie Horton” memetics that validated encroachments within the judiciary of an emerging natural law ethos, emphasizing personal responsibility and family values; and
- Contiguously rising influence of originalist and textualist approaches to Constitutional law.
While p0or Richard Hofstadter had gone out of fashion by the 1980s, he chronicled and anticipated the dark emotions of this undertow in his books on The Paranoid Style of American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
25 / The New Natural Law: Germain Grisez and Robert George
Chapter 25 of The Creation Project brings us to Natural Law 2.0, in which Catholic University professor, Germain Grisez responds to Vatican 2, and presumably the sexual decadence of the 1960s, by formulating an amended perspective on natural law emphasizing the dignity of human life and the sanctity of marriage. While these terms might now represent empty calories, tropes of the religious right, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” in reality, the “new” natural law reshaped the landscape of sexual politics in the United States, cementing perhaps the most traditional pillar of influence still available to the American Catholic Church.
This chapter takes seriously the impact of the new natural law, which has largely done its work in the shadows, but can claim decisive influence in the post-Roe v. Wade era, by anchoring the sexual counter-revolution intellectually and by facilitating construction of a powerful and effective political and legal apparatus for promoting “religious liberty,” “conscience,” and “family values,” and for battling sexual deviancy (homosexuality) and unnatural gender identification (transsexualism). Professor Robert George has fought on the front lines of this war, and this chapter will focus significantly on his efforts, arguments, and influence.
26 / American Greatness: Michael Anton and Stephen Miller
Chapter 26 of The Creation Project considers the quite odd, but undeniably potent, American Greatness theme around which the nascent (and perhaps still-born) intellectual formulations of “Trumpism” have organized themselves since the 2016 election. The notions of American Greatness were given voice in the pre-election “Flight 93” essay by Michael Anton, writing from the Claremont Institute in southern California. They have since received official expression in the frothy speeches written by Stephen Miller for Trump’s inauguration, his February 2017 address before the joint session of Congress and his September 2017 address before the General Assembly of the United Nations.
In some respects, the florid and high-minded sentiments of America First Truthers are simply reheated affirmations of American exceptionalism of the Ronald Reagan variety. However, the underlying tone is far dark, brooding, medieval, and threatening, a tendentious declaration of the greatness of Western European civilization since the High Middle Ages – that the West is the source of everything valuable in the world, and the United States the highest and most advanced expression of that Western spirit. Beneath this contingent vision of American exceptionalism, is the belief that Christianity is the secret sauce for making Western Civilization great, and so presumably also the required ingredient, in these beleaguered times, for making the West, and America, great yet again.
This subtext about Christianity, with its fugue-like anti-Islamic counterpoint, has consistently provided the basis for the affinity of abstract and scholastic Catholic natural law philosophy with the burgeoning, bludgeoning American Greatness movement. The chapter probes the layers of meaning and implication in the idea of American Greatness, specifically its dependence on Catholic natural law precepts and a darker invocation of global war against Islam.
27 / Infinite Regress: Roy Moore and Joseph Arpaio
Chapter 27 of The Creation Project concludes the fourth section of book by examining dimensions of the New Brutalism in the context of the Old Globalism, with overlapping considerations of:
- Rural-urban divisions and the emergence of the tribal nation;
- Politics of Bannon bomb-throwing.
- Police militarization (or, as Rosa Brooks titles her book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything);
- Compression of the Constitution to a fetishized focus on the 2nd Amendment;
- Joseph Arpaio, Cliven Bundy and the “constitutional sheriff movement;”
- Blue Lives Matter v. Black Lives Matter;
- Unmooring of speech in the digital age; and
- Reduction of the functions of government and the rule of law to the application of force upon and imprisonment of bodies (much of which is outsourced).
The chapter also seeks to fold this upheaval from the medieval subduction zone into a framework that addresses the meanings of agency, free will, reason, and the Imago Dei amidst this chaos. Finally, by way of transition to the final section of The Creation Project, we consider our current moment of chaos as itself the manifestation of a self-organizing complex system that merits analysis on its own terms.
Part Five – Light of Creation: Complexity, Agency, and Caritas
28 / Four Horsemen: Science, Enlightenment, and the New Atheism
Chapter 28 of The Creation Project incorporates and parses arguments of the New Atheists known as the Four Horsemen (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett) who in the past decade have popularized scientific and political criticisms of revealed religion. The New Atheists have dismissed religious faith as an artifact of pre-scientific societies with a persistence in complex societies that is dysfunctional, dangerous, and unnecessary. The Four Horsemen highlight developments in evolutionary biology and neuroscience to establish biological underpinnings of religion and, more generally, to focus cultural attention on scientific appreciation for the mysteries of the universe.
The New Atheists help us to understand how complex systems obviate the need for belief in a personal God and create a way to appreciate the incredible miracle of nature without anchoring it deistically or theistically. They are brave in their assessment of and challenge to each of the major Abrahamic religions. But since the publication of their most formative statements a decade ago, they have added no persuasive amendments or extensions to initial formulations, and one can say, without bending the truth too much, that the progress of science has in many respects experienced a reversion (or even an inversion) since then.
In this sense, the chapter argues, the New Atheists have fallen short in their conceptualizations, by not providing a way, theoretically, to explain and understand the antagonistic and amplifying dialectics, in our Anthropocenic moment, of ignorance and “illiberalism” and what I call brutalism in its dance with science and enlightenment. This dialectic very much has the flavor of a contest over the relationship between form and content, and it invokes and discloses the subterranean contours of our minds and emotions that both Thomist Natural Law, with its ahistorical faith in a bland kind of reason-informed agency, and science/technology boosterism, with its faith in “innovation” and an engineered future, fail to capture.
29 / Marvelous Complexity: Emergent Morphologies, Fractal Recursions, and Phase Transitions
Chapter 29 of The Creation Project explores the phenomenon of complexity in the natural world and in human societies. This chapter places the idea of “content” in relation to motion at the heart of our understanding of the social manifestations of complexity. My philosophical perspective on emergence, complexity, fractal recursion, phase transitions and the like is unified by concepts of motion, collision, chance, and contingency. The idea of Brownian motion, applied metaphorically to the social space becomes a way to measure levels of social health and social risk by the vitality of our “motional” and “emotional” states and infrastructures. Formal rigidity that impedes motion by embedding content produces a kind of stasis we might associate with illiberalism and brutalism.
Brownian motion in a quantum, probabilistic environment also helps us to capture a hugely important idea that eludes the natural law people, with their cathected attachment to their regressive and repressive (sexually and otherwise) forms. Which is that none of us are one person, with one stable identity. Our identity is constantly shifting and activating and deactivating on multiple levels of our cognition. Brain science tells us this, but we also appreciate the fibrillating, shifting quality of our identities from knowledge we have ourselves and of human behavior generally. The point, generally, for the future, is the importance of resilience (the anti-fragility of the annoying Taleb), and we can only increase that capacity, for hanging in there and showing up, by accepting and honoring and owning the variability of our existence and our identity.
30 / The Curse of Entropy: Fallibility and Failure, Resilience and Endurance, Life and Death
Chapter 30 of The Creation Project considers complexity’s meanings for social formation from the perspective of entropy, a state in which the motional energy associated with heat dissipates over time until resolving itself molecularly into a condition of stasis or equilibrium. The chapter is particularly focused on what happens when things exhaust themselves or die, and what Catholic-Christian and Thomist natural law conceptions of a personal God and an afterlife of the spirit imply for the ways of the flesh and the ends of the earth.
From a scientific perspective, the chapter also engages questions of agency. If the terminal moment of entropy within a self-organizing system is stasis, the absence of heat and movement, are the only conditions for restoring heat and motion external to the system, and at that point does it cease to be self-organizing?
31 / Tolkien’s Trees: Environmental Death and the End of Natural Law
Chapter 31 of The Creation Project positions J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth in the middle of the current fray. With Steve Bannon speaking of his “deplorables” as “hobbits” (when he isn’t reminding them that the “globalists” think they’re “morons”) and Peter Thiel naming his company Palantir, Middle Earth clearly has become contested terrain, on many levels, and for reasons worth unpacking.
The chapter examines Tolkien, first and foremost, as an environmentalist (about which much has been written), and as an environmentalist specifically in the sense of someone whose body of work can be imagined as a British pastorale, a romanticized and lyricized homage to the landscapes and pathways and villages of British shires. Tolkien especially loved tree and forests, and experienced them as spiritually alive and sentient, in a manner that anticipates recent studies of the ways trees communicate and care for each other within their own closed and complex systems (Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees). Tolkien also used the destruction of ancient forests to represent the most calculating, cynical, and violent impulses and excesses of Saruman’s brutalist regime.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth is vegetative rather than carnal, and meditative and elegiac rather than active and vital (the preoccupation with pipe tobacco and beer is telling). Animals (besides Gandalf’s eagles) are not important to the story. Radagast the Brown, who among the three great wizards of the West, attends most closely to forest animals, occupies the margins of the story. However, Tolkien’s three reason-possessing races – elves, men, and dwarves – each possess unique relationships to the natural world that undermine the model of human dominance over and stewardship of nature intrinsic to the environmental ethics of natural law philosophy.
32 / Illuminating Life: Return to Francis
Chapter 32 of The Creation Project returns the story to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whom the world knows as Pope Francis, the first non-European pope since the 8th century. As an Argentinian, Pope Francis embodies elements of the marginal revolution and possesses peripheral vision – a view of the world from the wrong end of the telescope – that positions him ambivalently in relation to the traditions and institutions of the Church, and in relation to the historic authority and influence of the Christian West. With his flexibility on matters involving sexuality and marriage, the Pope has stirred significant unease among radical traditionalists within the Church, has agitated American proponents of the “new natural law,” and of course has been the target of Twitter fusillades from Donald Trump.
This chapter focuses specifically on Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical and parses its meaning in relation to the most important themes and moments of The Creation Project:
- Divergent spiritual and terrestrial visions of Thomas of Aquino and Francis of Assisi, and the creative tension between these visions;
- Contingencies of human relationships to nature, the fraught balance in these relationships between mastery and submission, and between domination and dependence;
- Vast, cascading impacts of content’s raging liberation from its traditional forms, with the impacts of this liberation upon traditional, dearly (and stubbornly) held Catholic commitments to human reason as an instrument of these forms; and
- The relationship between humility and grace, and the significance of this relationship for preserving “the resonant spaces in-between” humans in their interactions with each other, and humans in their interactions with nature.
Ultimately, we return through the encyclical to the meaning and location of illumination.