Ascetic Flight

Is it possible to see asceticism as an inner element of faith’s responsibility for the world?  In terms of ordinary feeling and usage everything seems to speak against it.  Do we not automatically identify asceticism with an attitude of rejection and denial of the world?  Does not Christian asceticism have an inner tendency to flee from the world?  We are not concerned here to deny this tendency outright, or to show that somewhere this there is a grievous misunderstanding; on the contrary, we affirm this tendency to be true, in a sense.  And we consider it an important one — still today.  The important thing is to understand it properly and thus find an approach to an elementary feature of Christian responsibility for the world.  Ascetic flight from the world should never be simply a flight out of the world, for man cannot in fact exist without a world.  Such a “flight” would only be a deceptive entry into some artificial world beside this one (generally only the more convenient religious world situation of yesterday).  Not flight from the world, but flight “forward” with the world is the basic movement of ascetic flight from the world: flight from the world that is established only in the present and in what is controllable, whose “time is always here” (Jn. 7, 6), St. Paul’s call to renounce the world, above all his warning “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12, 2), must be correctly understood.  Paul is critical not of solidarity with the world, but of conformism with it.  He is critical of men who in their self-prestigiousness seek to fashion the world’s future entirely by themselves and to turn everything into a function of the present.  He is calling not simply for some undialectical denial of the world, but for the acceptance of painful conflict and self-sacrificing disagreement with the world, for readiness to challenge the present in the name of the promised future of God.  What drives the Christian to the flight of asceticism and denial of the world is not, therefore, contempt for the world, but responsibility for it in hope — in hope for that world future as it is announced and sealed in the promises of God, against which we constantly harden our hearts in pride or despair. (101-102)

Johannes Baptist Metz | Theology of the World


No Limit

If the processes of Law and Market can thus develop in a perfect historical parallel, it is finally because the reasons that govern this double movement are in both cases structurally identical.  The ever more radical ethical purge that each of these apparatuses is forced to conduct is no more than the practical counterpart of the renunciation of ‘conceiving human life in terms of its good or its purpose’ which philosophically organizes the entire liberal mechanism.  But this process, being avowedly without a subject, must equally be without a purpose.  In the liberal configuration of the world, therefore, and whatever may have been the original moderating intentions of its founders, the very notion of limit becomes (for the first time in the history of civilizations) philosophically inconceivable.  To legitimize its principle, in fact, it would be necessary to draw support from moral values, which means, according to the liberal ideology, from arbitrary normative constructions, designed to set men once more against one another, on the model of the wars of religion that are ever to be condemned.  Thus it is under the effect of its own logic, in the last analysis, that a liberal society finds itself compelled, as Marx perfectly well understood, to ‘constantly revolutionize all social relations’ and undermine all ‘patriarchal, idyllic relations’.  ‘Constant revolutionizing of production’, Marx continues, ‘uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.’  This is the reason why the ‘bourgeois epoch’, i.e. the modern age, ontologically committed, once it has historically managed to reproduce itself on its own foundations, to the idea that ‘the final goal is nothing, movement is everything’, knows only one sole philosophical motto: the acceleration of all processes, a decisively modern reformulation of the old principle of intendant Gournay, ‘laissez passer, laissez faire‘. (70-71)

Jean-Claude Michéa | The Realm of Lesser Evil

Against Morality

Given the constitutional distrust of liberals towards the eternal tendency of people to claim to be acting morally, this latter proposition must be understood in its most radical sense.  It implies that the society of lesser evil is not simply one that, in order to function effectively, has no need to demand of its members any kind of work on themselves (to exhort them, for example, to conform to a definite ideal of moral or religious perfection).  In fact, and as Adam Smith (after Mandeville) never ceased to emphasize, it is a society whose cogs function all the better if each individual spontaneously renounces any such work (which, moreover, is inevitably suspect), and prefers to this ‘sacrificial’ existence the more tranquil pursuit of his well-understood interest and the realization of his particular desires.  It is only on the basis of this preventative necessity of dissuading individuals from succumbing to the temptation of morality — the source, as we know, of all utopias and evils — that it is possible to understand, in their profound logic, the two parallel modern evolutions of Law and Market.  By borrowing the vocabulary of Spinoza, it is thus possible to formulate the following thesis: under a pure liberal system (in other words, one completely in conformity with its concept), the order and connection of Law are the same as the order and the connection of the Market.  These are certainly different attributes, but each of them expresses, in its own order and fashion, the unitary substance of actual liberalism. (63-64)

Jean-Claude Michéa | The Realm of Lesser Evil

Market and Law

The concepts of ‘checks and balances’ and a self-regulating mechanism, which organize all the ideological constructions of liberalism, must be understood first of all as the philosophical materialization of this original distrust of the moral capacities of humanity.  If the desire to subject human conduct to an ethical ideal taken as universalizable is indeed the crime that contains all others, then it is in fact impossible to try and establish tranquillity and civil peace without first neutralizing all conceivable forms of moral temptation, whether these are religious or otherwise.  In this sense, being ‘modern’ basically means being convinced that the new resources of Reason (of which Science offers the privileged model) are from now on capable of resolving this problem by indicating the lines of a double strategy.  On the one hand, removing all traditional figures of political authority, and on the other, gradually placing the collective existence of individuals under the control of impersonal and ideologically ‘neutral’ mechanisms whose free play will be able to produce automatically the entire political order that is desired, without ever having to appeal to these individuals in their guise of subjects.  As we know, for liberals there are just two mechanisms, and two alone, that possess this providential property — the two parallel and complementary clockwork mechanisms of Market and Law.  From the moment that this massive historical transfer has been effected, modern freedom can thus be recognized in its constitutive double dimension, both juridical and economic.  It can be defined, on the one hand, as the right to do anything that is not forbidden by positive law (as in Montesquieu’s formula), and on the other, in a more discreet fashion, as the right to do anything that does not contravene the rules of the Market. (61-62)

Jean-Claude Michéa | The Realm of Lesser Evil

Least Bad

As Hobbes clearly perceived, the imaginary institution of modern societies proceeds, above all, from a radical distrust of the moral capacities of human beings, and consequently of their ability to live together without doing each other harm.  From this point of view, the pious founding tales of the progressive myth are largely based on a retrospective illusion.  The genesis of the modern project (just as that of liberalism, which represents the most coherent version of this project) is hard to locate in the direct continuity of Renaissance Humanism, or of Florentine republicanism and its vivere civile libero.  The different political, economic and cultural agencies that configure the effective reality of the contemporary world, on the contrary, only seem fully intelligible in the light of their original anti-humanism.  In fact, it is to the extent that they assume people to be ‘incapable of truth and goodness’ — and infinitely more harmful by their chimerical pretensions to virtue than by the tranquil exercise of their vices — that the modernizing ‘Politiques’… found themselves logically led to limit their philosophical ambitions to seeking the least bad society possible. (59-60)

Jean-Claude Michéa | The Realm of Lesser Evil