Most people reading this are already aware of former First Things editor Joseph “Jody” Bottum’s recent rambling essay, “The Things We Share,” in which he apparently defects to the supporters of same-sex marriage. The essay has gathered a lot of scorn from both opponents and supporters of same-sex “marriage” and does seem to be meandering, contradictory, and ultimately unsatisfying in its arguments.
Other bloggers have done well in pointing out the essay’s explicit nonsense, and I do not intend to retread the same ground. Rather, I want to take a more careful look at the essay from the standpoint of “Straussian” criticism.
Persecution and Democracy
In “Persecution and the Art of Writing” Leo Strauss suggests that modern critical scholarship has overlooked a fundamental factor that affected the writing of many of the great philosophers: the threat of “persecution.” A Jewish or atheistic philosopher writing in an Islamic context, for example, would have been in danger of denouncement if his true beliefs were too openly shared. For this reason, Strauss posits that philosophers living and writing in an intolerant age developed ways of expressing the free thoughts of their minds while apparently endorsing the current official “orthodoxy.”
“Nobody would prevent him [the philosopher] from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal [i.e., heterodox] view. He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it . . . Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse or lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of the young men who love to think.”
The philosopher would even present the “liberal” view more lucidly than its own proponents, before eventually mounting a relatively flat, conventional attack upon it in the customary style of the time.
It is important to note that, in Strauss’s opinion, the most significant instances of esoteric writing appear in societies that exist somewhere between the two extremes of utter persecution of free thought and complete license. ‘Persecution’ does not necessarily mean the Spanish Inquisition. Strauss lists a panoply of philosophers he considers to have written esoterically to some degree — all of whom lived in relatively tolerant societies: Plato, Maimonides, and Locke, to name a few. A common feature of these societies is a strong state, with some degree of official religious tolerance. Free inquiry may have been more circumscribed than religious belief and practice. Without pretensions to divinity, the secular power was considered to be “right,” a correct embodiment of the political truth. In democracies, this ‘truth’ is of course the “will of the people.” Political “orthodoxy” then, in the democratic context, is first to assume that the opinions of the majority are natural and correct, and then to seek to determine what those opinions are and declare one’s opinions to be in accord with them.
According to Strauss, it was in a context of quasi-persecution that Plato developed the concept of the “noble lie.” In the Republic this is expressed when Socrates says that political society ought to be organized around a fictitious hierarchy of social classification; the “myth of the metals.” The divisions don’t actually exist but it is better to say that they do for the better ordering of society. Strauss believes that this public-spirited “lie” is a subtle hint to guide the careful reader toward Socrates’ more “liberal” true beliefs. Elsewhere, in the Laws, the philosopher suggests that vice, in this case the consumption of alcohol, can help to teach the virtue of moderation. However, in Crete, where the Laws is set, drinking is forbidden. Strauss draws the analogy between the “vice” of drinking, which loosens the inhibitions, and the “vice” of talking about the illegal act of drinking, which liberates the philosophically inhibited mind to consider a truth that exists beyond the law of the state.
Strauss observes that during the rise of modern liberalism, liberal philosophers abandoned the caginess which characterized ‘liberal’ philosophy in earlier ages (as Strauss interprets it), most notably eventually abandoning the concept of the “noble lie” in favor of strict sincerity. This tendency did not take shape immediately though, and even the plain-speaking John Locke exhibits strong esoteric tendencies and a capacity for concealing his true thoughts, especially in his hidden critiques of religion. It is not until the complete triumph of the Enlightenment, when even Immanuel Kant wondered if the French Revolution had gone too far, that liberals completely scorned the “noble lie” in favor of a kind of radical truth-telling.
The other assumption that changed with the rise of liberalism was the question of whether “the masses” could, or should, be able to understand a philosophical argument. Esoteric writing tended to shield unorthodox thought by writing inoffensively on a level that the literate populace could understand, but by means of certain techniques pointing toward a subtler meaning that only the truly thoughtful, considered to be “men of good will,” would recognize. Democratic ideology takes for granted that the majority of the public are in fact people of good will and understanding, since they hold, by franchise, the public trust. To conceal one’s meaning from them became a “vice.” Thus the practice of esoteric writing apparently withered away after the Enlightenment, at least among sincerely liberal philosophers.
In today’s intellectual world, liberalism has assumed the “orthodox” position. Thus, one intending to advance an un-liberal argument might do so under the guise of attacking it from the viewpoint of the liberal “orthodoxy.” He might exercise certain techniques to conceal this intention from the mass of readers.
One characteristic of Bottum’s essay which marks it as not being for the masses is the fact that it is prohibitively long: 90 full paragraphs or about ten thousand words; much longer than the average length of an Internet essay. What is also immediately clear is that he did not need this much space to make the argument he claims to make. He does most of that in a few paragraphs at the conclusion.
Everyone acknowledges that for an intellectual as wise and respected as Joseph Bottum, as good a writer as he is, this is some remarkably strange and sloppy work. Might it be that his essay should not be taken at face value? Perhaps he is, as Strauss puts it, “writing between the lines.”
The Funding Acknowledgement
As others have observed, the essay’s most significant feature does not at first glance appear to be part of the text. The acknowledgment at the end of the piece appears on the surface to be merely conventional: “Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.” However, given on one hand the argument the author claims to have made, and on the other hand the moral and religious views the author attributes to himself which are in conflict with this argument, the reader is led to the rather unsatisfying conclusion that the writer is corrupt — i.e., that he is accepting payment to write in support of views not fully his own. To claim to be a person of good will and yet to draw the reader’s attention to the possibility of corruption is unmistakably to raise the suspicion that there may be intentions buried beneath the surface reading of the text. It raises the possibility of unfree or even coerced action on the writer’s part — in Strauss’s terms, of “persecution.”
For this reason, as good Straussians, we must return to the text, paying more careful attention to aspects of its arrangement and style which the ordinary reader might have overlooked or dismissed as accidental lapses in style or unintentional errors in fact.
One of the first indications that a writer intends to communicate on both an “exoteric” and “esoteric” level is when he, not being the sort of writer to make casual mistakes, errors of fact, or self-contradictory statements, seems to do so. This may be a signal that the surface interpretation of the work is not to be trusted.
A pleasing feature of Bottum’s text is the folksong, “Shady Grove,” with which he begins and ends the essay. He describes it in the last paragraph as “A bit of old-timey Americana, the stuff we all still share.” The verse he quotes in the first paragraph goes:
When I was just a little boy, / all I wanted was a Barlow knife.
But now I am a great big boy, / I’m lookin’ for a wife.
In the last paragraph he quotes the verse:
Some come here to fiddle and dance, / Some come here to tarry.
Some come here to prattle and prance. / I come here to marry.
Given the subject of the essay, is not at all clear whether we all do in fact share this “bit of old-timey Americana.” The song is about romance and married love of the decidedly traditional kind. Maturity, it implies, is about valuing and seeking the joys and responsibilities of marriage. In the course of a ten thousand word essay Bottum has done a lot of fiddling and dancing, a lot of prattling and prancing, a lot of shucking and jiving, but not much talking about marriage itself — that is to say, he has devoted hardly any time to actually arguing in favor of a view of marriage that would include same-sex couples.
Another contradictory element is Bottum’s purported Americanism. Catholics, he suggests, should support same-sex marriage because it is now (possibly) an accepted part of American culture. This reminds me of Strauss’s observation that in states where speech is restricted, the law of the land is regarded, especially by the young, to be right by virtue of being the law. The authority speaks truly, according to the “logica equina,” and since nobody is contradicting him, the young person assumes what he says must be true.
Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage
The clearest indication that Bottum intends an esoteric reading of his essay is the way he addresses the arguments against his stated position. Toward the beginning of the essay he off-handedly dismisses Ryan T. Anderson with the remark that the view of natural law Anderson wants to promote has “no purchase,” i.e., no widespread acceptance in American culture. Nevertheless, a few paragraphs later Anderson pops up again, with the writer calling his 2011 essay and 2012 book, What is Marriage?, “the clearest, most cogent defense of traditional marriage.” This seems, at least, like a book recommendation or a whispered word to the wise: If you want to understand the best argument in favor of traditional marriage, read this book. Those who take this implicit advice will find that its authors do not in fact rely on any obscure, hackneyed ideal of “natural law,” but present a prudent, comprehensive political defense of traditional marriage as a common good.
In no way does Bottum mount a critique of Anderson’s secular arguments. Instead, he spends most of his time in the realm of religion, lamenting how darned inconvenient the consistent Catholic teaching on sexuality continues to be. His citations, from G.K. Chesterton to Pope Francis, present an unchanging — one might almost say, a God’s-eye view — of marriage and sexual morality. Reading Chesterton, one is reminded that the Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality was countercultural long before the vaunted “sexual revolution.”
This also Bottum acknowledges. His narrative of the “disenchantment” of modernity would, in a less defeatist context, form an excellent program for a young Catholic culture warrior, more clearly stated than most of the popular Christian literature on the subject of sex and marriage. This reminds me again of what Strauss wrote. For ‘liberal’ read, in this case, “Catholic”:
“He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants.
One may recall here Bottum’s petulant excursus on his quarrels with Maggie Gallagher and Chuck Colson over the “Manhattan Declaration.” Strauss continues:
“Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and was therefore approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.”
The “central passage,” the fruit of knowledge which Bottum explicitly commands the reader not to grasp, is found in the following paragraphs, just after the writer has reminded us of Pope Francis’s latest recapitulation of the unaltered Catholic teaching on the family:
The stony ground on which the church must sow is the landscape created by the sexual revolution. Made possible by the pill, accelerated by legalized abortion, aided by easy pornography, that revolution actually needs none of these any longer to survive, because they never defined it. They merely allowed it, and the completed change is now omnipresent. The revolution is not just in the way we use our bodies. It’s in the way we use our minds.
One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex. Oh, I know, it was extolled by the revolutionaries as allowing real experimentation and exploration of sensation, but the actual effect was to disconnect sex from what previous eras had thought the deep stuff of life: God, birth, death, heaven, hell, the moral structures of the universe, and all the rest.
This is nothing less than a comprehensive critique, an unmasking of the liberationist creed, stripped of its sentimental trappings, in a few words. Bottum even underlines it with some sly satire:
The resulting claim of amorality for almost any sexual behavior except rape reflects perhaps the most fascinating social change of our time: the transfer of the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and onto…well, onto food, I suppose. The only moral feeling still much attached to sex is the one that has to hunt far and wide for some prude, any prude, who will still condemn an aspect of sexual behavior—and thereby confirm our self-satisfied feeling of revolutionary morality.
The turn against any deep, metaphysical meaning for sex in the West, however: that is strange and fascinatingly new, unique to late modernity.
What kind of moral or social victory do you obtain if the marriage you’re granted is defined as nothing more than a way in which individuals define the concept of their own existence?
Bottum goes on to argue, I think satirically, that since secular protestantism has, through embracing divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography and the like, already destroyed any real meaning that sex and marriage have in the modern world, why should we not allow same-sex couples to participate in this meaningless farce of “marriage?”
He references G.K. Chesterton’s tract The Superstition of Divorce:
G. K. Chesterton once suggested that if there truly exists such a thing as divorce, then there exists no such thing as marriage. The root of the paradox is his observation of the metaphysics implicit in marriage ceremonies: “There are those who say they want divorce in the second place without ever asking themselves if they want marriage in the first place. So let us begin by asking what marriage is. It is a promise. More than that, it is a vow.” If we allow divorce, then we have already weakened the thick, mystical notion of marriage vows. Adultery is an everyday sin. Divorce is something more: a denial of a solemn oath made to God.
Then, as if nodding before the hearth, he rouses and seems to abandon this line of argument with a sort of disclaimer: “I’m not trying to argue here directly for an end to the culture’s embrace of legalized divorce, much as the sociological evidence about the harm to children now appears beyond dispute.” The important word here is “directly.” Indirectly, as I have shown, he does much to strengthen the Catholic case against perversions of marriage; little to actually promote the views he claims to hold.
Since the essay is addressed to Catholics, and yet the argument is based on secular Protestantism, the implied rhetorical critique, the “esoteric” teaching if you will, is clear: Why should Catholics (or other orthodox Christians) play by these rules? Why should we pawn our Christian identity and beliefs for a mess of stale American pottage?
If any devotees of Ockham’s razor, having read thus far, are inclined to think I have built up an elaborate structure of bogus argument in order to extract something other than the plain sense of Bottum’s words from his essay, consider one final point before you give my arguments a close shave. I do not want to be uncharitable to the man, and in order to be charitable I am even willing to consider that he may not have intended to be correctly understood by every reader. After all, there are only two other possibilities:
- That Bottum is a candid, well-meaning, but stupid man who cannot reason or coherently express his sincerely-held views without accidentally contradicting them; or
- That Bottum has sold himself out to a cause he does not believe in, for money, while attempting to play both sides with his incompatible and vague sympathies, in a way that provides little support or comfort to either.
Yet Bottum is both a good and honorable man, and a capable and even excellent writer, as his friends and associates all testify, even as they disapprove of his essay. My interpretation allows this essay to be the work of a virtuous and sincere man, as well as an excellent, even subtle writer, as long as you accept that he does not intend to be correctly understood by everyone. I think Bottum hinted at this in an interview he gave, in which he said,
“I didn’t really think that it would be misread in quite the way that it has been.”
I think I can make a reasonable guess as to what Bottum believes the young Christian truth-seeker should be doing:
- He goes so far as to say openly that theological and philosophical reasoning has “no purchase” among the American public. This does not mean that it is wrong, just that your average Joe will not find it convincing by itself.
- Again, he explicitly argues that the real problem is “disenchantment,” the loss of a sense of wonder at things that points to the spiritual realities of creation.
- If disenchantment is the problem, it should follow that re-enchantment, rather than renunciation, is the answer.
- Since for most of us, this cannot be done through reasoning alone, those who understand the truth on a philosophical level need to communicate it in other ways.
The reason we say “the naked truth” is that in order to conceal her own ugliness, Falsehood steals Truth’s garments. The naked Truth is still beautiful, if severe. Clothed in her own raiment — poetry, art, music, kindness, and peace — she is glorious. Here are some ways that young Christians can present her more effectively:
- Telling the truth about sex and marriage in clear and sympathetic ways;
- Being living examples of married and unmarried people who honor their vocations;
- Making art and music that adorns truth with beauty;
- Being gracious and sympathetic to our friends who suffer from various kinds of sexual pathology, whether it be lust, pornography, or disenchanted self-image;
- Standing up against all forms of domination and sexual violence;
- Recognizing the gift of children as precious souls, neither to be destroyed in the pursuit of ‘freedom’ nor selfishly commodified in any way.
In doing these things, we will be counteracting by deed, word, and example the “disenchantment” of secular modernity, attracting our friends, neighbors, and even adversaries to the holistic, truly affirmative way of life to which God calls the world through Jesus Christ.