Excerpt #23 — David Bentley Hart on Modern Freedom

We all talk about freedom, or freedoms: the modern period is shot through with liberating the individual from the tyrannical claims of the group, and various self-help and movement-politics trends position themselves as furthering the cause of freedom.

Talk of freedom –the concern for further spreading freedom-as-liberties, for maximizing personal freedom-as-autonomy– is everywhere today, and the pursuit and establishment of freedom are a hallmark of the modern period. Financial success and stability is marketed as offering freedom. The Stoic trend that has steadily risen in philosophically-oriented self-help fora concerning liberation from one’s own passions is one form of this concern for freedom — it simply turns the eyes of the individuals from liberation from external forces and conditions that enslave to liberation from internal masters. The LGBTQ movement is another form of this, overturning conventions and taboos for the sake of freedom. Fears about potential or actual threats against journalistic freedom are another form of this; concerns about religious freedom are another form of this; movements to bring about a state of greater economic parity between segments of the population are yet another form of this. I could go on.

The concern for freedom is everywhere. But what is freedom?

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Excerpt #9 — Gregory the Great on the Ends of Political Power

In order to write responsibly the Fifth and final entry in the series “The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future”, I have been forced to return to a number of books I have not read in some time (e.g., the political and religious works of the magnificent John Locke), and many that I have not read ever (e.g., The Institutes of Gaius).

Some of both of these are by the late Walter Ullmann (d.1983), who is treated at length by any responsible historian of the Medieval period. Ullmann is known most chiefly for his thesis that there are two competing sources of political power in the Middle Ages, one from God to the king (who then delegates what power and authority he wishes to officers who have no right to it, and from whom the king can –so Ullmann says– recall it at a moment’s notice), another from the People; this model is largely concerned with the efficient causes of political power, rather than their end, their teleology.

One of Ullmann’s many appreciative critics, Joseph Canning, notes that, when the teleology of monarchical power in the Middle Ages is properly attended to, the whole profile of medieval models of kingly power changes from Ullmann’s sketch of exclusive and absolute willful authority –with the people having no right of resistance– to something else. The Late Antique figure of Gregory the Great (or Gregory I), Pope of Rome (ca. A.D.540–604), who was massively influential on the culture of the Middle Ages, wrote an early text, the Moralia in Job (or “Morals on the Book of Job”), composed and delivered to a group of like-minded ascetics in an initial form in 578, while Gregory was a deacon, a papal legate to the court of the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, and completed years later, after Gregory had already become the Roman Pope. It is almost obscenely large, and I know of only one person who has attempted to read all of it through from cover to cover; it is also rather unanimously regarded as his magnum opus, and one section of it contains, as Canning suggests, a picture of royal power that is at odds with Ullmann’s thesis, and shows the proper ends of worldly power in general, shows that it had a strong teleological thrust. 

I here offer the one section of Gregory’s Moralia cited by Canning as relevant to Ullmann’s thesis, together with parts of the section leading into it, and the section following it, with no massive amounts of commentary for now beyond a few notes at the end.

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David Bentley Hart on Heidegger: Modernity-as-Nihilism

(Some scraps while I read and write away at several other, more substantial, pieces.)

Earlier I posted an excerpt from the later Heidegger; I have also posted thoughts from David Bentley Hart (on Marilynne Robinson, of Gilead fame). Wishing to combine the two, we might discover that Hart published an article on Heidegger in February of 2011 (ignore the venue of that link, if it bothers you: the article is worth reading). This is the last time I’ll be posting about Hart for the foreseeable future, though there is much about Heidegger I shall eventually get to here (barring death). Continue reading

David Bentley Hart on Marilynne Robinson

Several years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote a review (it was here) of Marilynne Robinson’s book Absence of Mind. He ventriloquizes Robinson, posing this question: Continue reading