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How Technique and Method Overcame Virtue

February 26, 2019

 

 

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was a Catholic philosopher. He was raised Liberal Protestant and later became agnostic. He married, and later made a pact with his wife that if they could not find a higher meaning to life that they would commit suicide together. After their search they became Catholic. Jacques is credited with being one of the key figures to bring St. Thomas Aquinas back to English speaking culture. Pope St. Paul VI offered him a position as a Cardinal but he declined, an especially odd but honorific offer since he was a lay person.

 

In his paper on Art and Scholasticism he seeks to rediscover what St. Thomas and the "School Men" had to say about art. He tried to develop this dialogue. In the work he locates a problem with modern art, which is a larger problem for all fields and the Catholic life in general.

 

Thus method or rules, regarded as an ensemble of formulas and processes that work of themselves and serve the mind as orthopedic and mechanical armature, tend everywhere in the modern world to replace habitus, because method is for all whereas habitus are only for some. Now it cannot be admitted that access to the highest activities depend on a virtue that some possess and others do not; consequently beautiful things must be made easy.
     -Art and Scholasticism; Jacques Maritain

 

What does this mean?

 

Prudence is an intellectual virtue, meaning it governs the intellect to its right ends. St. Thomas says Prudence, or Wisdom, is simply right reason in action. So the "practical man" who does stupid stuff but it's always getting something done is not wise, he's just rash. Likewise, the book worm who doesn't know how to wash his clothes, cut down a tree, or clean his dishes isn't wise, because he doesn't know how to act. Art is very close to the virtue of Prudence, except the former is about making and the latter is about doing.

 

The Modern problem we face is that Prudence has been replaced with "techniques" and "rules" and "methods." We largely think these are "orthopedic," that is, they will heal us, make our lives better, put our families in order, help us find or create more time, and save us. At the same time we know they are "mechanical armature," that is, we think that the method or rule is the "engine" or the "power source" of our actions having practical effects. We think "the technique works!" rather than "My habit works!"

 

For example, someone says, "I have 10 rules to help you have a healthier life," and following this list of rules is thought to be the thing that actually makes you better, without any reference to your will or intellect as the thing doing the changing, and without any reference to your appetite which is the source of the problems since you like unhealthy food.

 

We thus think of methods and rules as things external to us that will help us. And since they do the work, I have no need to internally change. The only internal change I need to is to pick up the latest pop psychology book on how to repair my relationships, how to parent, how to figure out my personality type or color or love language or enneagram, etc. etc.

 

Pop Psychology

 

Even Catholics get steeped into this kind of psycho babble. But when the techniques don't work and I don't become a better person I must come to the question, "What am I doing wrong?" The self-help book crowd is already two steps ahead though, so they always have the chapter on "Don't be so hard on yourself, it's a process." We bolster a failing Pelagianism with more Pelagianism, the "I don't need grace just self-mastery" heresy.

 

The trick played on us is that habitus formation is a process, whereas the methods and rules we're being sold aren't developed by us, they're employed by us. Thus once the method fails they appeal to your sense that you do need to change so it'll take time. So you go back to employing the method and not changing yourself. But since you don't change, nothing changes with your employment of the rule. This goes on till it fails, and you find yourself looking for the next pop psychology book.

 

See the trick?

 

And we pay billions of dollars a year for this refuse. Freud and Jung won the cultural war, and Christian psychology of some 4,000 years in a developing tradition that has, is, and can develop with psychology proper was replaced with a secular psychology that assumes we're all ghosts in machines trying to employ methods and techniques. If you don't know what a thing is, you can't possibly fix it.

 

Secondly, unless these people have lived a good life all the way till death, you can't actually trust their methods work. This is like asking someone who has never finished a race what the best way to finish a race is. Just because someone is doing well on the first stretch of the race, or halfway up, or even to the last stretch, doesn't mean they'll finish. Thus seeking pop books on how to lead, how to parent, how to be successful, or how to make friends are all ultimately silly. Listen to the saints, they're in the hall of fame, living people aren't.

 

In psychology we call the reduction of human action to mechanism - "Behaviourism." It has formally been declared a kind of "heresy" in secular psychology, but it keeps rearing its head in academia. Popular authors have made billions on magical technique, arbitrary rules, and methods based on sheer assertion, outdated research (i.e. its been debunked with research), or anecdotal evidence (trying to draw a universal law from a story of it working one time). Philip Rieff was a secular, atheist, Jewish sociologist and philosopher who could see through these tricks. If he can then surely we Catholics, aided by the Light of Faith, can see through it. He famously called this kind of stuff "shamanism" in a modern disguise. Magic regulated by bureaucracies and self-help gurus. See Philip Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic or Charisma for more on that problem.

 

So despite the fact Jesus has given us The Church and the Sacraments we go searching elsewhere. Despite the fact Jesus tells us "The Way is narrow" and few find it, we expect to find a broad and easy way in a pop psychology text. Somewhere, someone, is willing to give you that answer if you go looking for it. But do you want truth or comfort?

 

Why do we seek Technique & Method?

 

We want healing now. And we want it easy, without internal transformation: long, arduous days and nights of keeping vigil, prayers of sorrow, torment, suffering, and pain which are all part of the cost of becoming better. He have to fight inclinations to do things wrong. It is ourselves we battle. The technique promises a "no battle, no worry, no going to war with your vices" way out of our problems. And like the Devil's Temptation of Christ in the desert, they're all lies. Of course we need rules, but those can only be used by a prudent person correctly. The imprudent person will use the rules when they should suspend them and will suspend them when they should keep them. Or again, the bad carpenter will use the hammer wrong, and will swing in accordance with the "method" he's seen, but it won't be employed well. He must become better, not the method.

 

The ancients thought that truth is difficult, that beauty is loftiness of the object, it is absolutely necessary that an intrinsic force and elevation -- that is to say, a habitus -- be developed in the subject. The modern conception of method and rules would therefore have seemed to them a gross absurdity. According to their principles, rules are of the essence of art, but on condition that the habitus, a living rule, be formed; without it, rules are nothing.
     -Art and Scholasticism; Jacques Maritain

 

We want the effect of habitus without the cause. We want good things without hard work. We want excellence without virtue. We want glory without a cross. For this reason, the reign of method and technique is anti-Christian, and its supporters are anti-Christs, for their Pelagianism tacitly presupposes the Crucifixion is unnecessary for salvation, and that The Incarnation was all for nought. This means The Father sent His Son to be killed for no reason, making him no better than the tyrant gods of pagan nations, another capricious Poseidon or Odin.

 

Egalitarian Society and Virtue

 

An egalitarian society must despise habitus and treasure methods. It must hate virtues and love techniques. This is because virtue creates inequality. And if there be any excellence, there must by implication be mediocrity and inferiority in terms of servile arts like craftsmanship, but also those of moral quality, like good and evil men. What's more, it means ethical mediocrity and inferiority are moral problems. In a society of virtue, the indifferent man isn't dismissed as "well, that's just Joe," but as "Joe's apathy is a problem inhibiting his happiness, his family's, and possibly his city's happiness. We need to help Joe. What's going on with him?"

 

But to maintain egalitarianism, as Maritain says, "beautiful things must be made easy." When the French Political Commentator, Alexis de Toqueville, visited America in the 1820's he commented on Americans love of abstract art. He said it was natural for Americans to love it, because it was so democratic, for anyone could do it. Whereas the ancient painters were proficient at ages 10 or 15 and, like the Pre-Raphaelites, masters by 20. Today our 10 year old do macaroni art, and our 20 year olds perhaps have graduated from stick figures, but probably not. This is symptomatic of an egalitarian ethos

 

Likewise, in the society of technique and method, we must lift up Tolerance as a supreme virtue. Following John Locke rather than Jesus, the virtue of indifference and glorification of mediocrity becomes key. Nothing is better or worse, all is equal. "Everything is everything." Music and art suffer, virtue declines, and "everybody is just fine." Moral and spiritual Sloth sink in, the malaise of Modern life takes over, anxiety, depression, and personality disorders come out of an extreme lack of rootedness, objective purpose, and overall message, "Everybody is so equal nothing you do matters. Oh, but also, be successful and do great things. But they won't matter. Enjoy life."

 

The article written last week on the Pre-Raphaelites is a perfect instance of the problem of technique and method without habitus formation. The Academy began turning Raphael's habitus into a method and technique that was then forced onto all their students as the only way of doing art. The Pre-Raphaelites rebelled as a natural human inclination toward habitus. They wanted excellence and not rote copying, that after a period of time simply becomes mediocre. Every art became like every other piece of art, and thus all particularity of person or topic or object of art was vacated. A machine could do it.

 

What we need to overcome Technique & Method

 

If we are to escape the clutches of the shadow side of the Industrial Revolution, we shall need to abandon the self-help books, the 10 tips to perfect your life lists that litter internet sites and grocery stores, the attempt to Catholicize Secular Pop Psychology, and the spiritual but not religious yoga-vegan-meditation-consumer-ethic videos on youtube. 

 

We need great art once more.

We need the virtues once more.

We need permission to desire excellence.

 

Not the excellence of, "I followed the rules, I played the game, now gimme my success," but true greatness. We need permission to desire good things in this life, to be bold, to desire life as an adventure once more. We need to feel alive if we will overcome the malaise of Modern life. Ironically the rhetoric of mechanistic thought is "You can do anything you want or be anything you want," which is entirely the most depressing and quickest way to kill desire. It's like telling a man drowning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean he's "free to go any way he wants."

 

We shall need to stop living like machines, and start living like humans, for Christ was fully man. The Word became flesh, not metal. He did not come to give Pelagian self-help tips, our Gospels look nothing like these books. He came to give us a font of grace within us through Baptism, that the Holy Spirit Himself would aid us in combatting evil passions and willing good deeds. It does not start by assuming I'm just fine and capable of employing the right technique and method. If I was alright, I wouldn't need Christ.

 

We need to be human. And to act as humans, not machines. We need not Christ-like methods, but Christ-like persons.

 

The best strategy for change is a holy life, and nothing else. And for this there is one thing we shall need above all.

 

We need The Lord.

 

 

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