The relation between nature and reason is complicated, especially in politics.
It is human nature, for example, to notice connections and distinctions among people that seem innate and organic. Looking around us, we see a world made of men, women, and families, young people and their elders, my people and your people, those who are closer to us in various ways and those who are more distant. We see people who are higher and lower in the social world, and some people who mix with each other and others who don’t. And we also see, by and large, that good fences make good neighbors, and blood is thicker than water.
Such things are traditional as well as natural. They grow up without planning, and cannot be completely explained, so they are not entirely rational. They result more from feeling than thought, and create a world of daily life in which we feel at home, in which we know where we are and what we can count on. That world differs for different people and different times and places—religious differences aren’t the same for clergy and laity, or for Iraqis and Iowans—but general features are similar.
Modern thought doesn’t like these features of the human world. It contrasts nature with reason, and prefers what it calls reason—the more conceptual and content-free the better. So it emphasizes universal abstractions like freedom, equality, and efficiency. It thus tries to do away with particular connections and distinctions, except those that can be justified on purely rational and functional grounds.
Everything has to be planned or specifically contracted for, so what is traditional or merely natural—let alone transcendent—has to go. That is why we have doctors, auto mechanics, and department heads in everyday life today, while kings, queens, and increasingly even priests seem vestiges of a different world.
The results, however rational the intention, don’t always satisfy. Children, who are closer to nature, still prefer stories that feature older sorts of characters, along with country cottages, walled gardens, homey neighborhoods, and exotic foreign lands. They would rather hear about Vikings than drone operators.
That worries their elders a little, so they ply their offspring with right-minded stories about strong single mothers working in a day care center and studying at night for professional certification. And if they tell a story about Vikings the longboat captain is likely to be a princess from Mali who’s somehow ended up in Scandinavia.
It’s a bit reminiscent of Soviet B movies from the Stalinist period—boy loves girl loves tractor—only more so.
But what to do? Justice is rational, and we owe political allegiance to it. It may be natural to do special favors for friends and relatives, but that’s not what someone should do as a judge or police officer.
Even so, politics is a human way for human beings to carry on their lives, so it has to fit our nature. And the world is too complicated for everything to be planned and made systematic and rational. The collapse of socialism finally persuaded people that economics doesn’t work that way, and there are parts of life that are far more complex than economics. The networks of beliefs, attitudes, habits, and expectations lumped together as “culture” provide an obvious example.
Such issues have long provoked discussion. Edmund Burke’s discussion of the need for natural, evolved, and inherited institutions in his Reflections on the Revolution in France is a famous example. Basically, he says the only way to get a social and political order that people will attach themselves to, and will serve the immense variety of human concerns in a reasonably adequate way, is to rely heavily on traditional arrangements in which the practical issues have been worked through in ways people mostly approve. When reform is needed, and changes have to be made, they should be as nondisruptive as possible so that fixing one problem doesn’t cause a hundred others.
Similar issues arise in a variety of settings. In our own time, the late architectural theorist Christopher Alexander and his followers have explored the reasons for the all-but-universal preference among ordinary people for traditional architecture. To explain what’s going on, they’ve produced a theory of living form that adds something to Burke’s account of tradition, but is less historical and more analytical.
According to that theory, what distinguishes traditional buildings and towns is that they seem alive. The question is why that is. These writers say the life of a built form is a matter of wholeness defined by “centers” that contribute to each other in complex ways as part of an interlocking hierarchy. It thus involves—among other things—strong local centers divided and linked by well-defined border regions, and hierarchical levels of scale with somewhat similar forms at each level.
Think of the facade of a cathedral, with its peaked roof and great peaked or arched door and smaller windows, doors, and niches, also peaked or arched. Or an oriental rug, with its borders within borders and patterns within patterns, or a tree, with its limbs, branches, twigs, and leaves with branching veins.
Architects have applied these principles to produce buildings and communities people actually like and want to live and work in. Similar principles have turned out to be useful to software designers, and I have noted that principles that apply to architecture seem relevant to liturgy as well.
So the idea that living form tied to nature and tradition is important not only aesthetically and emotionally but practically seems to have something to it. It would be very strange if something as complex, all-embracing, and utterly human as politics and social life could be divorced from the usual forms life takes.
But it’s not clear what to do about that in an age that wants to treat society as a rational machine, with influential voices insisting that “deeply rooted social stereotypes”—that is to say, patterns of life that are traditionally expected—must be destroyed as a matter of fundamental moral necessity. All traditional boundaries, distinctions, and hierarchies must, we are told, be abolished. That insistence is the essence of “wokeness,” which is basically a matter of taking today’s official ideals seriously.
The obvious response to such assertions is that wokeness, in spite of its widespread acceptance, must be rejected as antihuman. The Church’s profoundly unwoke natural law understanding of sex, the sexes, and the family should tell us as much, as should the principle of subsidiarity, which becomes useless if people are not free to form cooperative local relationships in ways they easily and naturally form them.
But how far should the rejection of woke views go? Our nature is fallen, not all traditions are good, and reason and equity are also part of the natural law. Some difference in the roles of the sexes, and some preferential attachment to friends, relatives, and cultural community is right, but when and how much?
The answer no doubt varies somewhat by time, place, and circumstances, but it’s rarely demonstrable. We can, of course, point to some general rules. Judges and police officers should be strictly disinterested when performing their duties. As citizens, though, they should be preferentially loyal to their country, and in private life to their family and friends. But how far should that go?
All we can do is keep basic principles in mind. The first principle is evidently the concept of the good life. That involves enduring realities, like the differences between the sexes and the need for stable families and settled functional communities. It also involves adjustment to changing realities. How to apply those considerations will always be a difficult question that calls for good will, caution, and respect for experience.
Ultimately, though, the concept of the good life points to God as its source and its binding and coordinating principle. And that is yet another reason social order must always be based on religion. Without it, there is no good way to focus the myriad considerations and judgments that go into a way of life. And that leaves no alternative to a social order based on arbitrary decision and thus the simple will of the powerful. Current developments, it seems to me, are making that more clear than ever.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!