Archive Natural Law Peter Escalante Philosophy

Helping David Bentley Hart Find His Nature

David Bentley Hart has responded somewhat coyly to Dr Feser here. Dr Feser had pointed out the peculiarly Humean tone of Hart’s remarks about natural law, which suggested that there is no bridge from the is to the ought; of course Hart is not actually a Humean, but more a Romantic, which means, one who allows for magic in the realm of the subjective, but not in common reality – in other words, you either hear the noumenal fairy flutes in your heart, or you don’t, but there is nothing so vulgar or possibly contradictory as the phenomenal involved. Hegel calls this sort of character the “beautiful Soul,” and sees in him the first step in what we have called the retreat to commitment, and Gilbert musically glosses the philosopher’s insight:

Though the Philistines may jostle,
You will rank as an apostle
In the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Picadilly
With a poppy or a lily
In your mediaeval hand.

A few notes on Hart’s reply. He describes himself as an “integralist,” and says that unlike Dr Feser, whose Thomism divides reality into nature and supernature, he holds to a unitary reality. Of course, most people don’t apprehend this reality; blame it on the Fall of Man or inadequate exposure to Bach or both, the fact is, they just don’t get the ineffable It. They just don’t. Those fine elite who do are in the communion of saints, but they can only point to It, like the Zen master’s finger and the moon. And along with this unitary reality, Hart holds to a unitary reason which is the mirror of theophany; ordinary reason which claims to know God’s creation, because it is created to do so, actually doesn’t, because really nothing is knowable other than God. That nature-supernature distinction which Dr Hart rejects is not the distinction between natura and donum superadditum which evangelical protology, the really integralist catholic doctrine, rejects: it is actually the Creator-creature distinction.

Metaphysically this is Ontologism. And epistemologically, it is fideism; as the Catholic Encyclopedia has it:

A philosophical term meaning a system of philosophy or an attitude of mind, which, denying the power of unaided human reason to reach certitude, affirms that the fundamental act of human knowledge consists in an act of faith, and the supreme criterion of certitude is authority. Fideism has divers degrees and takes divers forms, according to the field of truth to which it is extended, and the various elements which are affirmed as constituting the authority. For some fideists, human reason cannot of itself reach certitude in regard to any truth whatever; for others, it cannot reach certitude in regard to the fundamental truths of metaphysics, morality, and religion, while some maintain that we can give a firm supernatural assent to revelation on motives of credibility that are merely probable.

Or, as Dr Feser put it, “conservative subjectivism.” Hart has really not answered Dr Feser at all. One, and only one, of his criticisms is fair in itself, even though it does nothing for his case, and that is his critique of the two-tier anthropology of papalism.

We have recently discussed this very thing. But the Thomist distinction comes in all sorts of kinds, and Dr Feser’s take on the matter is of the saner sort which sees something of a real continuum between the two, and which regards supernature as a perfection and stabilization of original creational pattern; this approximates the orthodox doctrine of the evangelical assemblies. Of course, as Dr Hodge and our doctors in general pointed out, even this is finally inconsistent with papalism as a whole. But we aren’t talking about papalism as a whole, we are talking about Dr Feser. And it does nothing for Hart’s case, because Hart’s “integralism,” which he counterposes to Dr Feser’s faith/reason distinction, is manifestly subjective and fideistic. Thus it is especially funny to see Hart equate Thomism with Kantianism, since Hart’s own obedience to Kantian Verbotszeichen is pretty evident; he proclaims a supernatural reason transcending “theory’s limits,” but it only does so by existing in the hortus conclusus of the noumenal and the subjective, “hidden nature.”  This is evident because by Hart’s own admission there is nothing common about this reason-transcending reason, which is actually revelation, except it isn’t really public revelation, but rather private revelation: mysticism. Thus, apparently, the Vedantin or Wiccan entronaut, in his mystical transports, apparently has the ineffable “It,” but the claim of the sons of Abraham (shared with all sane men) to public knowledge of common creation, and the further claim to public knowledge of the very public revelation of the Lord from Eden to Sinai to Pentecost, these are apparently mere “theory” insofar as they are purported to be public and historical.

Hart’s four reasons for his position all reduce to apologias for skepticism. He is careful to say they are “conceptual obstacles our age erects in the path of natural theory,” but he is equally careful not to say that any of these are simply wrong. Everything in his argument suggests that “our age” has in fact done well to erect these obstacles, because created reason, the common reason we all have, really can’t know anything, and natural law and natural reason are delusions unless they are modes of mysticism. Thus it isn’t at all clear that he wasn’t speaking for himself when speaking as a “disenchanted modern rambling among the weed-thronged ruins.” Now he might want to say that the problem is uniquely ours, and that previous ages were somehow more uniformly mystical – but that Guenonian claim won’t stand an hour’s historical examination. Or he might perhaps say that it is really not so much nature that loves to hide, but rather the knower, so as to avoid the blazing sunlight of life outside the Cave, but this too makes no sense, since the kind of argument Dr Feser has made is simply a philosophical articulation of what has been the moral and legal consensus throughout the world up until now.

One does not have to hold to the donum superadditum to regard Hart’s position as nonsense. For us, “conservative subjectivism” is a fantasy world, and reality is common; for Hart, apparently, reality, natural law, and natural reason, are the fantasy world, illusions superimposed upon sheer theophany. Is Dr Hart really such a mystic? We will be permitted, I am sure, to disallow as evidence the glow he gets from Bach. Whatever the case might be with him, we might well suspect that the stance of mystical fideism he outlines is in fact, like Charlie’s non-experience of God in Metropolitan, just a wistful nose to the Kantian window of the closed shop of experience:

Charlie: Of course there’s a God! We all basically know there is.
Cynthia: I know no such thing.
Charlie: Of course you do! When you think to yourself – and most of our waking life is taken up thinking to ourself – you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted, that in some sense they are being heard. I think it’s this sensation of silently being listened to with total comprehension that represents our innate belief in a supreme being, an all–comprehending intelligence. What it shows is that some kind of belief is innate in all of us. At some point most of us lose that, after which it can only be regained by a conscious act of faith.
Cynthia: And you’ve experienced that?
Charlie: No, I haven’t. I hope to someday.

But the Schleiermacherian transport, the imagined desideratum left after fitting the Augustinian heart with a Kantian condom, never does arrive.

And about that nature/supernature distinction: Hart is of Eastern Orthodox profession. Presuming that he is in accord with the teachings of that federation, he must hold to a two-tier world too, for the East as much as Rome has something like a division of Christians between those who merely follow the precepts, and those who follow the counsels. Rome places more emphasis on ordination; the East on tonsure (which they regard as a sacrament, after all), which inaugurates the “bodiless life in the body.” Hermits on Athos really live it, of course; Romantic admirers characteristically identify with the exotic mystic but only vicariously. The East is as inconsistent as Rome, since like Rome it makes a fetish of celibacy and cannot make up its mind about the goodness of the original form insofar as it remains. What for Protestants is a matter of orientation of the heart, animating from within one’s full engagement with the world, is for Rome and the East both a complete or partial withdrawal, institutionalized as “religious life.” The East in a way goes even farther than Rome, for its “original nature” is almost immaterial, and it reads the “garments of skin” in Genesis as the kind of bodies we have now, which are therefore the result of the Fall. But if there is that much of a difference between primordial nature and what we know as nature, then Hart really needs to say that this is what he means, and that therefore he really isn’t talking about reality as we know it at all.

But as we’ve said elsewhere, this is not what our modern Romantic theologians seem to be really after. They continue to live in the world and write for First Things, after all. What they are after, whether they know it or not, is to “erect obstacles” against the jurisdiction of common reason, so that conservative subjectivism can live in untroubled luxury.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.