The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk, Andre Gushurst-Moore, Angelico Press, 2013
Andre Gushurst-Moore’s The Common Mind is a fine addition to the Angelico list. As the subtitle indicates, this is a broad-themed book, encompassing politics, society, and religion. But the key is Christian Humanism—the tradition of thought and action rooted in recognition of man as created in the image and likeness of God. As we enter a new era, in which successive generations of “post-Christian” policy, ideology, and cultural disintegration render us a largely non Christian society, the signal importance of Christian Humanism becomes clear. That tradition, which finds its motive force in the belief that Christ’s sacrifice, His becoming fully human and sharing in the sufferings of we mortals to the point of dying for our sins, both calls us to a higher existence than the mere sating of appetites and provides the guidance we need to choose that higher life and, with grace, to lead it.
Gushurst-Moore brings the Christian Humanist tradition to life through thoughtful and thought-provoking portraits of twelve heroic figures, from Thomas More to Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk, who themselves facing times of disintegration and sought to shore up the materials of our civilization and so make virtue possible again. As we face the disasters of our own day, it is well to remember the challenges faced by those Christian Humanists who have gone before. Today, both political parties assume an increasingly hostile position toward traditional mores, with their grounding in traditional faith, traditional families, and a traditional attachment to the institutions of local life. We see the logic of liberalism being played out in the solidification of secular social democracy.
The times seem as bleak as they can be. But are we really facing greater tragedy than Thomas More, whose king abandoned the Church, sacked her Monasteries, burned her priests, and proclaimed himself master of the sacred as well as the secular realm?—oh, and secured perjured testimony to condemn More to death? Are the childish claims to god-like Reason and the adolescent demand to make the world anew in accord with our own childish dreams more militant and destructive today than in the time of the French Revolutionary Jacobins faced down by Edmund Burke? Do the self-appointed guardians of “substantive equality” today demand more than the Communist mass murderers of the Cold War through which Kirk lived and wrote?
Indeed, this last example is of particular importance, for Kirk knew that in the battle against Marxist ideology our own fanaticism might lead us to surrender our liberty and our way of life to a vast, centralized state that claimed to protect us from all danger. For Kirk was arguing against the dreams of American Empire before the latest debacles in the Middle East. And our pride, our demand for “greatness” has combined with our weakness, our determination that the state protect us from all dangers, whether foreign or domestic, to positively demand that our leviathan state grow and help sap the essential faith in higher, permanent things we had begun to lose on our own.
A central purpose of Gushurst-Moore’s book is to show how important figures have responded to the forces of disintegration so powerful in the modern era. Of course, mankind’s problems did not begin with modernity. But up through the Middle Ages our sins were recognized as such. Our cruelties, though too often overlooked or justified on specious grounds, left our natures intact. And most people most of the time recognized that, above us all, there is a law according to which our public and private acts will be judged. Increasingly since the early modern era, however, what Kirk termed “abnormity,” has become common and even praised as a sign of “independence” and a praiseworthy individuality. Gushurst-Moore does a wonderful job of showing the acts of recovery in which figures including John Henry Newman in theology, C.S. Lewis in literature, and Benjamin Disraeli in politics engaged, as well as explicating the common mind that joined them in their efforts.
In examining the sources of contemporary abnormity and setting forth the tradition opposed to it, Gushurst-Moore focuses on this common mind, its nature, and its loss. The phrase, taken from G.K. Chesterton, integrates our conceptions of natural law, common sense, and conscience. Chesterton noted that “in everybody there is a thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight;” this thing is the better angel of our nature. It is our common sense, not taken as the repository of old wives’ tales, but understood as the almost instinctive wisdom of morality. It is our moral imagination, as Burke described it, providing us with examples of virtue capable of leading us to act as we ought to act, out of a desire to be like those we admire and love. It is our drive toward the good, regulated by natural attachments rather than mere appetites.
Gushurst-Moore provides a wonderful quotation from Chesterton outlining the confidence game of modern ideology, which promises an easy system to “straighten out the world” if only we will first grant insane premises such as “that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there.” We are deep in the grips of false reality, confident that we can make over the world to save us from want, from danger, and from recognizing the essential differences of our varied natures, abilities, and choices. Gushurst-Moore shows the falsehood of these claims. Even more importantly, he presents us with moving stories and thoughtful analysis of exemplary figures—of wise, even saintly guides who can show us a way back to the integrated vision of man, society, and God’s nature which alone provides the means to re-integrate our own lives and, perhaps, renew enough of our culture to keep virtue alive in dark times.
Christian Humanism itself may be corrupted into the demand for worldly perfection, but Gushurst-Moore firmly grounds the tradition in the High Middle Ages—an era in which societies and cultures were rooted in the common mind. For its integration of character portraits, history, and analysis of the assumptions, beliefs, and understandings that make possible great acts of creation and courage, The Common Mind should be recognized as a significant contribution to the literature of Christian Humanism.
This wonderful book is published by a relatively new, independent press whose mission is to help “deepen our knowledge of the Catholic tradition” and help us “to find new ways of living our faith within that tradition.” I sit on the Board of Trustees, but hope you will not hold that against Angelico Press, because it really is a fine and noble venture. Angelico already has added significantly to the sources available to Catholics and other people of faith as they face the barbaric, anti-religious culture in which we now live. From works of theology and Christian contemplation to history and humane letters, it publishes important authors from Aquinas to Chesterton to The Imaginative Conservative’s own Stratford Caldecott. Its mission statement and catalogue may be found at angelicopress.com.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.