Bourgeois Freedom in the Secular City

The freedom with which [humanity] is concerned must not be confused with the individual autonomy bestowed on us by the industrial society; a society in which the field of obligation has been reduced to that of work.  A man must do what he is told during his work time, but in his leisure (non-work) he is free to do, believe, worship, read, what he likes.  It is only in so far as these activities touch on the work relationship that they are restricted.  This autonomy represents a new kind of society by comparison with the feudal one it replaced.  It is the bourgeois secular city; the society in which the ‘city’ takes no official notice of anything except secular work-relationships and professes indifference to how its citizens play or paint or love or pray or speak with each other.  All such ‘sacred’ activities are free.  (I call them ‘sacred’ in so far as they transcend the profane world which is more or less strictly regulated by social utility.)  In the secular city a man is very nearly completely collectivised during his work time and very nearly a completely autonomous individual for the rest of the time.  ‘The modern subjectivity in which we today experience ourselves as individuals and personal human beings, is a result of the disburdening of social intercourse by reducing it to terms of practical affairs.’  Progress in the bourgeois society essentially consists in diminishing as far as possible, by such means as automation, the proportion of man’s life that is spent in the slavery of work.  This liberal society is not yet a society of freedom in the christian sense.  Freedom fundamentally means being able to give oneself and thereby realise oneself; a free society is a set of media in which people are able to be open to each other, to love each other without fear. (156-158)

Herbert McCabe | Law, Love and Language


Resurrection & Revolution

The resurrection of Christ means that death is not just a matter of destruction, the end of life, but can be a revolution; the beginning of a new and unpredictable life.  All revolution means a radical change in the structures within which we have our existence, all revolution produces a new kind of man; resurrection is the revolution through death, the radical change of those structures within which we exist at all.  I mean that a man can survive other revolutions; there are structures, the structures of the body, which remain untouched by the most radical changes in his other media of communication.  Resurrection means that because of his link with the Father in Christ a man can suffer the destruction even of those basic structures, the ones that constitute his body, and rediscover his identity on the far side of death.  Because the current world is crucifying, Christ-rejecting, even in its bodily structure, mankind can only achieve its destiny, its unity in love, through a revolution that goes as deep as this, through the revolution of death.  The new world comes only through the death of this world.  Thus every revolution which deals with structures less ultimate than this is an image of, and a preparation for, the resurrection of the dead.  The Cuban or Vietnamese revolution is a type of the resurrection in the sense that we speak of Old Testament events as types of Christ.  In a sense every revolution draws upon powers that are not catered for in the preceding society, powers which therefore seem to be invisible because they transcend the terms of that society: ‘we are not just peasants, we are men, though you have forgotten it’.  The power and the spirit of every revolution thus comes from ‘outside’ the society that is overthrown.  The power and the spirit of the ultimate revolution, the resurrection, comes from ‘outside’ man altogether.  For the christian, this is what divinity is: God is he who raised Jesus from the dead. (133-135)

Herbert McCabe | Law, Love and Language

Capitalism & Human Nature

Whatever may be true of primitive societies it is at least arguable that the sophisticated society does present certain obstacles to understanding the nature of man, not, however, because it is industrialised but because it is capitalist or profoundly affected by capitalism.  As Karl Marx remarked, ‘According to Adam Smith, society is a commercial enterprise.  Every one of its members is a salesman.  It is evident how political economy establishes an alienated form of social intercourse as the true and original form and that which corresponds to human nature’.  A certain distortion of the nature of man is built into the capitalist culture which makes it difficult for us to recognise ourselves for what we are, to recognise, in fact, what we want. (59-60)

Herbert McCabe | Law, Love and Language

Facts and Values in Bourgeois Society

Very roughly the bourgeois industrialised society is one in which men come into relationship, form a community, hence come to agreement and thus to ‘truth’, only in terms of production.  What lies outside this sphere is free, is not a matter of agreement, is ‘subjective’.  The world of hard facts is the world in which the factories are working, wages are being paid, goods are being distributed; this is the area of necessary agreement in the bourgeois society.  Such a society does not require agreement in matters of aesthetics, religion, or ‘private morals’; these belong to the sphere of comment and are relegated first to private judgment and then, as their social irrelevance becomes clearer, to the subjective world of ‘values’. (26)

Herbert McCabe | Law, Love and Language

Unity in Struggle

In fact the only approach we have to a real unity is the solidarity of the poor and the exploited against their oppressors: we have to recognise both that this is so and that it is not enough.  It is just the nearest we can get to unity.  We have to recognise that the only God we know is the God of the poor, the God who takes sides in the struggle, and that any God of consensus who is supposed to belong to both sides is an illusion and a dangerous one.  Sorting out the sides is, of course, a delicate business because though God is not on both sides we are: God is a God of judgement because he is love.  We do not have ‘God on our side’, and this is not because God is neutral but because we are compromised.  We have to see that there is no other God to be known except the God of the oppressed, ‘The Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery… you shall have no gods’; and yet this is not yet to know God.  The Church must be the Church of the poor — this is the sign that she is on the way to the kingdom; it also shows she is not there.  St Thomas says that we have sacraments (that is to say, the visible sacred life of the Christian cult) because of sin; and, of course, we make an ‘option for the poor’ because of sin: when we have passed from the world of sin to the kingdom all this will wither away.  For St Thomas, as for Karl Marx, organised religion is the symptom of human alienation and will not outlast it.  Bourgeois anti-clericalism and atheism such as flourished in the nineteenth century and still persists today is the expression of the belief that human alienation has already been radically overcome by the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the dawn of liberal capitalism.  Neither Christians nor Marxists see things that way.  There is no real unity to the world, the only authentic unity is in the struggle, and it is because this is our real unity here and now that we can only express the Kingdom sacramentally.  We can see humankind itself as one only in mystery, in the gesture towards the reality that is to come.  We can only see God in mystery, as the reality that is to come.  We cannot see love except in hints and guesses of what is to come. (78-79)

Herbert McCabe | “Holy Thursday: the mystery of unity” in God Matters