((released 2004-12-01) (handle mh-71-m) (supplement true))
Guests on Volume 71: Peter Augustine Lawler, on Luther, Locke, liberty, and the American Founding Fathers; David Koyzis, on the modern denial of objective meaning and the exaltation of individual will; Roger Lundin, on the incarnational vision of Czeslaw Milosz, and on his poetry of exile and modern boundlessness; Craig Gay, on how the nature of money affects our sense of attributing value to things; Steven Rhoads, on Taking Sex Differences Seriously (and why it’s hard to do so); and R. Larry Todd, on the life and music of Felix Mendelssohn.
Political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler responds to Michael P. Zuckert in the essay “Religion, Philosophy, and the American Founding,” which is published in Protestantism and the American Founding. In the lead essay of the anthology, “Natural Rights and Protestant Politics,” Zuckert (one of the book’s two editors) writes that the Christian understanding of freedom and government, especially as it was known at the time of America’s founding, is similar to the understanding of freedom and government that philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) held. Lawler, however, contends with Zuckert’s thesis, explaining that the two systems of thought cannot be considered complementary. “Christian Lockeanism” is an unstable philosophy, he states, because the two components are incompatible with each other. While Lockean thought defines people as a-social beings and government as a human institution established for the purposes its subjects deem worthy, Christian thought describes people as communal beings and government as a God-ordained institution established to achieve God-given ends.
Political science professor David Koyzis identifies and critiques various political ideologies in his book Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, one chapter of which is dedicated to liberalism. Liberalism, he states, has as its philosophical antecedent nominalism, which claims that reality is named by those who have the power to enforce their definitions. In other words, nominalism declares that reality is not fixed to a transcendent point of reference. This declaration helps to explain the shift in liberalism away from law as rooted in transcendent principles, to law as rooted in the will of the sovereign governing body. Because of its presuppositions and logic, liberalism, states Koyzis, tends to exult the autonomy of the individual; that exultation leads, in turn, to the neglect of the responsibilities concomitant with rights, and to an insipid understanding of authority.
Readers often miss the deeper themes in the late poet Czeslaw Milosz’s work, says professor Roger Lundin, because they focus instead on his political reputation. As Lundin discusses those themes and reads from Milosz’s work, he notes that Milosz’s career spanned seventy years — a fact evidenced in the publication of New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001 in 2003 — only a portion of the writing from which encompasses political themes. Instead of merely praising ideologies above all else in his poetry, he chronicled the particulars of life. He understood the work of the poet (and poetry) as that of bearing witness to the ordinariness and goodness of life, to the beauty of creation and cultural memory. Milosz (1911-2004) called poets secretaries (readily donning that title himself), states Lundin, and devoted himself to dictating the intimate details of the world around him for posterity’s sake.
Sociologist Craig Gay discusses the capitalist market system and how it measures value; increasingly, he says, value is measured solely through money. His book Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society notes that this is a relatively new phenomenon — money as the standard and preferred tool for measuring worth — arising from the accounting practices that were developed and perfected in the twentieth century. The drawback, explains Gay, is that other goods upon which people used to place value are no longer worth anything and many people care more about how much money someone has or something is worth than about those other goods (a disposition that would have been considered unsightly in earlier times, Gay indicates). This myopic vision of meaning can be enlarged, however. Gay thus encourages people to pay attention to goods that do not have monetary value even as they participate in the market system, and to consciously acknowledge that everything they possess is, ultimately, a gift.
Contemporary wisdom about the sexes, says professor Steven Rhoads, espouses no differences between men and women other than those that are socially constructed. Rhoads’s book Taking Sex Differences Seriously collects data from several studies that disprove the conventional wisdom, demonstrating that differences between the two sexes have biological roots. Many people, Rhoads states, are eager to deny biological differences and to claim that men and women are androgynous. They fear that if they do not do so, women will be marginalized in the workplace and disrespected in their marriages. But by denying the differences and claiming androgyny, society is doing a disservice to women and itself: it is not valuing the work women have traditionally done in shaping society, nor is it acknowledging the nurturing they provide it.
Professor R. Larry Todd discusses his biography of composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), titled Mendelssohn: A Life in Music. Mendelssohn composed sacred music based on Protestant themes, settings of Catholic texts, anthems for the French Huguenot Church (his wife’s father was a French Huguenot minister), and music that represented the connections between his Christian faith and Jewish heritage. Todd illuminates the role Mendelssohn played in the revival of Bach’s music and his contributions to the art of conducting. Many have overlooked Mendelssohn’s music partly because of the titles publishers applied in the late nineteenth century to his “Lieder ohne Worte,” states Todd, but it does him no justice to regard him as a sentimentalist or his music as saccharine. Mendelssohn considered music deeply powerful and more definite than words, and he believed that it filled the soul “with a thousand things better than words.”
The late poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was born in Vilnius in 1911 and who died in Krakow in 2004, lived outside of his homeland for most of his adult life. Consequently, notes professor Roger Lundin, his poetry bears the stamp of the longings and sensibilities unique to those who have known exile. Lundin reads one of Milosz's poems that testifies to his dedication to the Polish language while in a foreign land, “My Faithful Mother Tongue.” In addition to demonstrating that Milosz paid tribute to his native language in his poetry, it also captures Milosz’s understanding of the balance between the urgency and importance of the poetic task, and a realistic humility about the capacity of the poet. Milosz knew people need order and beauty in the midst of misfortune; while the poet is not capable of eradicating misfortune, he can provide measures of order and beauty by setting “little bowls of color” before a language.