By Regis Martin
Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.
In an essay written in 1927 on the British philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley—whom hardly anyone bothers to read, much less remember, anymore—T.S. Eliot, who wrote his Harvard dissertation on Bradley, sought to identify the secret of his excellence, tracing it to what he called “his great gift of style.” And while it is true that his work exhibits, in Eliot’s words, “a purity and concentration of purpose,” unlike few writers of his time, what difference does it make if nobody is reading him, much less being persuaded by what he wrote?
But that, of course, is precisely the point Eliot wishes to make. Ethical Studies, written in 1876, was Bradley’s best book; it was also a sustained (and largely successful) assault upon Utilitarianism—that “great temple in Philistia,” Eliot calls it—so that by the end of the 19th century, the whole utilitarian mindset was, you might say, dead in the water. And yet the effort to kill it, Eliot argues, will never end, never mind the demolition of its premises by Professor Bradley. And for reasons which Bradley himself, of course, could not possibly know.
In other words, while it is true that Bradley, “in his philosophical critique of Utilitarianism, undermined the foundations,” the temple would always be back, rebuilt later and again in different ways—yet, as always, “for the same worship.” That is because the struggle in which men like Bradley were engaged, was not just fierce and fundamental for their age, but recurrent for every age. Despite having routed the enemy in one generation, it would certainly return in the following. His retreats, therefore, are only tactical because—as is always the case with errors of the mind and perversities of the will—he will never surrender.
In reminding us of mere temporary respites (but never of permanent peace), Eliot is describing a state of affairs to which, in this world at least, humankind will simply have to submit. Indeed, it is the whole point of the essay, and Eliot puts it unforgettably:
If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.
Transposed to our present moment and the discontents we face, we should take heart from Eliot’s message, giving the “widest and wisest view” possible therefore to the predicament we now find ourselves in. Yes, it is true that Joe Biden is now President of the United States and there is nothing we can do to change that fact. It is as plain as a potato, as Chesterton would say. Nor may we be able to stop in its tracks the revolution his victory appears to have set in motion. Change is coming and it will not be welcome, certainly not for the 75,000,000 of us who voted for Donald Trump. It is right and seemly that many of us questioned so dubious an electoral outcome. Unless that is, the enemy becomes fully mobilized and simply decides to silence all dissent. Nevertheless, the die is cast and whether we like it or not, the party now in power is not leaving anytime soon.
But we are not helpless to do anything about it, even as we find ourselves more or less bereft of the country we once knew. We do not repine. I say that because the country is more than those members of the governing class who, for now at least, occupy the national stage. Besides, with half or more of the country averse to the policies of the ideologues in charge, a spirit of resistance will naturally grow, and with its broadening influence many of the aggrieved will rise publicly to challenge the new order. In two years, surely, enough damage will have been inflicted to enrage great numbers of voters who, at state and local levels, may actually take back the House and the Senate. Two years after that? Who knows what woke policies will not have gone smash by then, thus hastening the end of Biden/Harris and with it, the possibility of a return to sanity.
In the meantime, we keep the tablets well burnished and available for perusal to all who care about ordered liberty and the rights and responsibilities of a free people. A virtuous people, inasmuch as a people without virtue cannot be free, cannot choose unwisely. Which means that for a godly people—a people for whom piety before God must remain the presiding principle in both the private and the public life—the sovereignty of God needs to be acknowledged and respected, extending its reach into every aspect of human life. “If you will not have God,” warned Eliot in the late 1930s when Europe was about to be consumed by the cataclysm of another world war, “who is a jealous God, then you can pay your respects to Hitler and Stalin.”
Prescient advice, now that villainy on a similar scale is about to be unleashed. To combat it we will need to be both brave and smart. Not only on the political front, by refusing to give in to tyranny which, for all the happy talk about unity, is exactly the direction in which the Democratic Party and its allies in Big Tech and Big Media aim to take the country. But also, and more importantly, on the spiritual front by refusing to absolutize politics, as if voter turnout were enough to turn back the storm. When Christ said, “Without me you can do nothing,” he wasn’t kidding. We need to pray; and not only for ourselves, and our country, but also for Joe Biden, who is our brother in Christ and whom God longs to convert. Why else would he give us prayer if not to ask him for things we need?
So, let’s get down on our knees and pray so that we can get back up on our feet and change the world. Always realizing, of course, that we fight to keep something alive, not in the vain expectation that it will necessarily prevail.