Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Detachment and Commitment Both

THE FOURTH AND THE FIFTH of the requirements of practical reasonableness identified by John Finnis in his book Natural Law and Natural Rights may be discussed together since they are complementary--indeed, they work in somewhat in dynamic tension. They are also intricately associated with the first requirement of practical reasonableness: that we adopt a coherent plan of life, a coherent plan which requires a reasonable order of priorities and a reasonable set of basic commitments.* We must walk the thin path of practical reasonableness by walking between detachment on our right and commitment on our left. Like a tightrope walker, we must achieve the right balance between detachment and commitment so that we do not lose hold of the center and fall into the unreasoning chasm of apathetic detachment or into the equally unreasoning chasm of the excessive commitment of fanaticism.

Detachment is required as part and parcel of a life marked by contingency of time and place which requires the ability to adapt, to evolve, to re-assess. Plans that had reasonable meaning under a certain set of conditions may no longer be viable. Things that were fitting at a time when one is single become unreasonable when one is married with children. Things that were fitting in a time of peace, are unfitting in times of war. Things available in times of plenty may not be reasonably indulged in times of want. When a child, one may do things as a child; when a man, it is time to put them aside. (1 Cor. 13:11)

For this reason, practical reasonableness demands a "certain detachment from all the specific and limited projects which one undertakes." NLNR, 110. The investment in specific and limited projects must be sufficiently solid and staying so as to see things through when faced with adversity, yet it must be sufficiently detached so when a project fails or a goal proves elusive, one does not "consider one's life drained of meaning." A law school professor of mind (Tom Mayo) told me a story in Civil Procedure of a professor whose life work was devoted to a treatise on the substantive federal common law based upon the regime of Swift v. Tyson, and, when confronted with the Supreme Court case of Erie v. Tomkins, which held that there was no substantive federal common law, but that the federal courts had to apply the substantive common law of the State in which they were situated, so despaired of his life's work that he committed suicide. This unfortunate professor (if the story be true, and not just a pedagogical stunt or an apocryphal tale) was not sufficiently detached from his specific project.

Such an attitude irrationally devalues and treats as meaningless the basic human good of authentic and reasonable self-determination, a good in which one meaningfully participates simply by trying to do something sensible and wroth while, whether or not that sensible and worthwhile project comes to nothing.

NLNR, 110. The value of detachment is not only a necessity for dealing with adversity and for recognizing the nature of our human limitations and conditions: it is not only a negative governor that steps in to assuage us in the times of disappointment and of failure. It has an affirmative role in restraining us from falling headlong into a fanaticism.
[T]here are often straightforward and evil consequences of succumbing to the temptation to give one's particular project the overriding and unconditional significance which only a basic value and a general commitment can claim: they were evil consequences that we can call to mind when we think of fanaticism.
NLNR, 110. The fanatic loses himself in the trees and forgets the forest.

The opposite evil is also to be avoided. There must be sufficient commitment so as to avoid the sloughs of apathy. There must be some level of commitment with sufficient staying power so that it outlasts those temporary setbacks, the virtually incessant vicissitudes of everyday life. We must not turn back at the first unfavorable wind. There must be some strong threat of fidelity to purpose, to principle, to end. "No one who puts his hand to the plow," says the Lord, "and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:62). So there is a balance to be had between excessive commitment and excessive detachment. Even in setbacks, such fidelity to essential purpose allows creative adaptation to changed circumstances. We are, in short, required to have the "creative fidelity" that was so dear to the heart of Gabriel Marcel. This creative fidelity to principle, to value allows us to cull out the inessential, the accidental from the essential, the substantial. It assures that we will never be wed to convention, to rules of thumb, to substitute or ersatz values, to methodology and procedure, "whose real appeal is not to reason (which would show up their inadequacies) but to the sub-rational complacency of habit, mere urge to conformity, etc." NLNR, 110.

Walk then in the path of detachment cum commitment, eschewing both fanatical commitment and irresponsible apathy, and like the children of Israel, who walked between two walls of trembling water on either side of them, follow the path of practical reasonableness like they followed Moses to the path from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. The law of the spirit follows the law of reason, just like the law of reason follows the law of the spirit, for God is the author of both. How can that be? How can both lead? How can both follow? Because they walk hand-in-hand in mutual guidance and in mutual following. That is to say, faith and reason walk in communion.

*See Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Be Coherent.

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