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Excerpt from Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society

A second element of organic society involves the manner in which remedies are found. In searching for solutions, we must carefully observe the fact that organic solutions cannot be imposed upon a people as if they were machines. We must avoid the modern mechanistic systems of order and rigid planning. Instead, counting upon God’s grace, we must recognize and respect the organic nature of man, full of vivacity, spontaneity, and unpredictability. This is the essence of a truly organic—that is, living—society.

That is why we propose—yet do not aim to impose—a model. What we present here is but a sketch, an outline, or a draft of which a final and exact rendering is not possible due to the nature of man and society.

Our intention is like that of loving parents, who, following certain moral principles, strongly guide, nurture, protect, and cultivate their children’s growth differently according to their aptitudes and the circumstances. Parents must not determine, force, or program the free will of their children since this is contrary to their nature. And so it must be when we look for organic solutions.

The Nature of Organic Solutions

We must seek to discover basic principles associated with the nature of things and in accordance with the Gospel, and then allow enormous freedom in applying them to the needs of the person or society. Moreover, we need not limit ourselves to a single system but allow an enormous variety of legitimate solutions that adapt to the inequality found in men, peoples, and the differing circumstances of life.

That is to say, there is no single magical system that we can put in place to solve all of our current problems. We can only discern the basic principles of a sound economy and society (which remain the same) and leave it to the ingenuity of each individual or social unit to develop the applications that best suit their needs. This ingenuity is something very much rooted in our own American tradition and contrary to socialism that always imposes a single unified system with rigid regulations to make sure everything works as centrally planned.

Organic society gives us a few general rules from which come thousands of systems. Socialism gives us one system from which comes a thousand rules and regulations. From this we can conclude that it is much more important to have the right general rules and principles than to design a rigid one-size-fits-all system.

Unlike socialism, the organic model of Christian civilization applied principles to concrete circumstances and the nature of things. From the unity of its basic moral principles came an astonishing variety of customs, systems, and solutions wonderfully adapted to the nature of people, places, and things. Such organic solutions give rise to the development of healthy regionalism where local inhabitants devise their own way of doing things.

Upright Spontaneity

There is a second aspect of organic solutions. This involves the manner by which living things naturally and spontaneously develop without rigid planning. This manner of natural development can be called upright spontaneity.

60s-hippies-350.gifBy upright spontaneity, we do not wish to imply that life should be aimless. It should be purposeful. We do not condone the whimsical or irrational “spontaneity” of the hippies of the sixties or their later incarnations. At the same time, we do not endorse the blindly evolutionary and deterministic spontaneity of some modern economists who conjured up the idea of a “spontaneous order.” [1]

On the contrary, our spontaneity is upright, rational, purposeful, and moral in accordance with natural law and the law of God. It is founded on firm principles. It should not exclude planning, method, or adaptive systems. Ever mindful of man’s rational yet exuberant nature, this spontaneity allows man to adapt as he gropes ahead in the general direction of a goal that is often not entirely clear.

In the development of healthy traditions, for example, a spontaneous gesture of vague patriotism towards the flag might later solidify into tradition. This might also be seen in the natural development of original schools of art. That is to say, this spontaneous development involves purposeful action towards a perceived yet not preconceived goal or perfection. This adaptive process is described very well as applied in medieval cities by historian Lewis Mumford: “Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal: it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful, so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern.”[2]

In a similar way, a spontaneous society is formed when each person adapts from opportunity to opportunity and from need to need in the general direction of a perceived perfection. In the case of an individual, this process corresponds to a person’s purpose, vocation, or calling in life.

Thus, upright spontaneity is a manner of acting according to principles, natural law, and the Gospel, which respects the unplanned development of life and fosters the exercise of free will, creativity, and adaptation.

Many Manifestations

Gothic_cathedral_d_uomo_by_yolayoli-d4az34eSince life is complex and full of nuance, upright spontaneity can manifest itself in many ways. Indeed, upright spontaneity can be found in acts of decisive leadership, full of energy and initiative. At other times, it can be perceived in acts of lofty contemplation or pondered deliberation. There are also times when upright spontaneity is marked by a strong sense of determination and profound order as might be seen in the building of a Gothic cathedral. This spontaneity can also manifest itself by outbursts of exuberant activity that seem to be chaotic, such as that found in the apparent disorder of a vibrant open-air food market.

Above all, we see the gradual development of things full of delightful nuance and intermediary phases without brutal transitions. Just as a child progresses to adulthood naturally and almost imperceptibly, so also the organic processes advance full of variety and unity.

The Triumph of Common Sense

What makes this principle so attractive is that it represents the triumph of common sense. Upright spontaneity is born of the day-to-day application of principles to concrete reality. It is always oriented towards reality, sensing its heartbeat, constantly gauging whether a situation is legitimate, virtuous, or worth supporting, ready to change if need be.

When the soul is upright and imbued with the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—such a manner of acting exhibits an astonishing ability to find lasting solutions and meaningful traditions. When this spontaneity is carried out in cooperation with the grace of God, it gives rise to great deeds and civilizations.

A Perceived Perfection

In a society of upright spontaneity, each person gradually works out a future. This presupposes a certain introspection whereby the person seeks to discern a purpose or station in life. Each is guided by principles, instincts, inner tendencies, and inclinations, all of which reason must judge. In the silence of one’s leisure (so rare in our days), each subtly recollects oneself and perceives a unique calling—God’s personal plan for the person—a concept despised by secularists who deny any designs of God in history.

And yet this calling—this discreet discernment of meaning and purpose in self and society and not a direct Divine revelation—is exactly what is lacking in our noisy existential wilderness where we are taught that we have neither place nor purpose in life beyond that of arranging our own pleasure.

“A calling links a person to the larger community, a whole in which the calling of each is a contribution to the good of all,”[3] write Robert Bellah et al. It establishes place and purpose whereby the person senses his part in the whole. At the same time, it is not a tyrannical or ordained order that is rigorously imposed upon the person as in a caste. Rather, it is a situation where the person has an enormous freedom to pursue the innumerable options that appear along the path of the ever more coherent development of his calling.

Spontaneity in Society

In a similar way, families, institutions, and nations can freely form, coalesce, and practice this same spontaneity. Governed by Christian principles and upright customs, such human groups can also, so to speak, collectively discern a calling or purpose in history.

Throughout history, innumerable institutions were born in this organic “spontaneous” way—without rigid planning. Historian Léon Gautier, for example, explains that chivalry was not an institution created by decree but by the collective discernment of an ideal. He notes:

It was born everywhere at once, and has been everywhere at the same time the natural effect of the same aspirations and the same needs. There was a moment . . . when people everywhere felt the necessity of tempering the ardor of old German blood, and of giving to their ill-regulated passions an ideal. Hence chivalry![4]

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So it was with the many families, local associations, and religious orders, all of which marvelously melded together towards that perceived perfection that later became Christendom. Virtue, in contact with unforeseen circumstances, gave rise to an unexpected model of a truly organic society without frenetic intemperance. We must also consider the action of grace which moved men to cooperate with God’s loving Providence and mold a new civilization. And so it must be for us if we are to find truly organic solutions to the present crisis.

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1. Naturally we disassociate ourselves from the theories of “spontaneous order” or “emergent order” that were circulated by such figures as David Hume, Adam Smith, and other modern economists. Although such theories may appear to be similar to our expression of “upright spontaneity,” closer examination shows that they tend to diminish the role of reason and free will. Any such evolutionary, amoral, and individualistic theories do not fit into our proposal.

2. Mumford, City in History, 302. Indeed, Mumford explains how medieval towns followed this process to such an extent that although each town was uniquely different, there was a perceived direction that formed a consensus around which all towns formed. “The consensus is so complete as to the purposes of town life that the variations in detail only confirm the pattern. That consensus makes it look, when one views a hundred medieval plans in succession, as if there were in fact a conscious theory that guided this townplanning” (ibid., 303).

3. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, 66. We might note that the general nature of this calling is clearly different from that of the rigid and fatalistic “callings” proposed by Luther or Calvin.

4. Léon Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (New York: Crescent Books, 1989), 1.

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