Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Review of Juan Donoso Cortés, "Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism"

This little book is one of the foremost texts of the Catholic Counter-Enlightenment.  Published in 1851, it was written by Don Juan Donoso Cortés, Marqués of Valdegamas.  Donoso was a Spanish politician and a former liberal who wrote the Essays in response to the 1848 revolutions.

Donoso's literary style was copious and prolix, and the book is suffused with a piety which is quite unlike anything in de Maistre, let alone Burke.  At times, its rhapsodic language about Catholicism and the Church gives it the feel of a devotional work.  Donoso declared that theology was the broadest and greatest of all endeavours, and affirmed that "every political and social truth is necessarily converted into a theological truth".

To Donoso, the Catholic Church represented the highest form of civilisation.  It was infallible and absolutely reliable.  Its very dogmaticism was its strength: "The doctrinal intolerance of the Church has saved the world from chaos."  The problem was that society was in danger of discarding the Church's infallible judgement for that of parliaments and the press, and that way lay falsehood and error.  Nor were liberalism and socialism purely political movements: they derived from Protestantism and the Reformation:
The real danger to human societies commenced on the day the great heresy of the sixteenth century acquired the right of citizenship in Europe. Since that, there is no revolution which does not involve for society a danger of death. This consists in the fact, that as they are all founded on the Protestant heresy, they are all fundamentally heretical.
He believed that human civilisation should be ordered in accordance with the will of God, being based on the building block of the patriarchal family and united under the sovereignty of the Pope:
[F]amilies are associated in different groups: each group of families constitutes a municipium.... From the variety of the municipia is formed the national unity, which, in its turn, is symbolised in a throne, and personified in a king. Above all these magnificent associations is that of all Catholic nations, with their Christian princes, fraternally grouped in the bosom of the Church. This perfect and supreme association is unity in its head, and variety in its members: it is variety in the faithful, scattered over the world, and unity in the holy Chair, which shines in Rome, surrounded by rays of divine light. That eminent Chair is the centre of humanity....
Donoso's opposition to political freedom stemmed from his anthropology of the human condition, which was in turn bound up with Catholic doctrine on the fall of man.  In the absence of the grace of God and the guidance of the Catholic Church, humankind is weak and wretched.  Men have inherited original sin from Adam, and are naturally inclined to lies and error.  They are able to fall into evil, and so to violate the natural order willed by God, because they have the faculty of choosing.  By contrast, he said, liberals and socialists believe that man is inherently good and that evil lies only in political and social institutions.  In following such ideas, man has departed from God's divine order and placed himself at the centre of the world:
Man, having ceased to gravitate towards his God with his understanding, his will, and his works, constituted himself his centre, and was the ultimate end of his actions, of his will, and of his understanding.
Donoso denied that his preferred brand of theocratic authoritarianism meant oppression and tyranny.  True Catholic rulers, he said, were humble and God-fearing, and the Church herself trod a middle road between despotism and excessive freedom:
She has defended liberty against those who aspired to convert authority into tyranny, and authority against peoples who aspired to an absolute emancipation.
As to his ideological opponents, Donoso didn't have much time for what he saw as the tepid moderation of liberalism: he thought that its effect was merely to exchange rule by an aristocracy based on birth, and therefore on inherited qualities, for rule by an aristocracy based on money.  Perhaps surprisingly, he seems to have preferred socialism.  He regarded it not merely as a political theory but as a theology, albeit a satanic one:
Between Socialists and Catholics there is no more than this difference — the latter affirm the evil of man, and the redemption on the part of God; the former affirm the evil of society, and the redemption on the part of man. The Catholic, with his two affirmations, does nothing but affirm two simple and natural things — that man is man, and executes human works, that God is God, and executes things divine. Socialism, with its two affirmations, does nothing more than affirm, that man undertakes and accomplishes the enterprises of a God, and that society executes the works belonging to man.
He also hewed closer to socialism than to liberalism in conceiving of humanity as essentially collective rather than individual.

Like other reactionary philosophers, Donoso thought that liberalism and socialism were not merely evil but also socially destructive.  They promised freedom, but their ideas would only end up dissolving the bonds of the family, political society and the nation, and enslaving people to an omnipotent state.  In seeking to create a perfect world, they would succeed only in creating bloodshed and chaos:
Those who made people believe that the earth can be a paradise, have made them more easily believe it can be a paradise without blood. The evil is not in the illusion; it is in the fact that, precisely on the moment and hour the illusion would be believed by all, blood would flow even from the hard rocks, and earth would be transformed into hell. In this obscure and lowly valley man cannot aspire to an impossible happiness, without incurring the misfortune of losing the little he has.
Yet the differences between Donoso and his fellow reactionaries are as striking as the similarities.  The work of Donoso and de Maistre, for example, is very different in both substance and style.  De Maistre is preoccupied by the spectre of the world collapsing into primaeval anarchy if it is released from the domination of the king and the executioner; Donoso is more concerned with the theological mysteries of the incarnation, the fall and divine grace.  And while Donoso is by no means unaware of the darker side of life, he at least doesn't revel in it.