The Sober Wisdom of Joseph Sobran

Perhaps Fox TV viewers and readers of his bestselling books think that Bill O’Reilly is a Renaissance Man. However, there is a far more intelligent and profound voice we can all listen to that thanks to Lew Rockwell I discovered; that voice belongs to Joseph Sobran. And his opus is available not only at LewRockwell.com but also published in books by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, which also has archives of his writings.

And so I’d like to share with you examples of Sobran’s unmatched quality of thought, thought that is profound yet eminently readable, a true pleasure to ponder and savor. His collection of writings recently published, Subtracting Christianity, proves the power and beauty of his thought and words. (I have to add for bibliophiles that the quality of the typesetting by St. Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community of New Hope Kentucky and printing by Sheridan Books of the hardcover edition of the book is exceptional in this age of expensive hardcovers with paper inferior to USA Today; of course a Kindle edition is available.)

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Although written some years ago, I believe his writings are just as timely today and the themes Sobran discussed are perhaps more pressing and deserve our deepest consideration. Daily we experience the never ending assault on Western Civilization, which itself would not have taken its present form without the influence of Christianity that is deliberately being marginalized and attacked; I suppose now it is nothing less than heresy to the “ruling class” and Social Justice Warrior/Cultural Marxists to acknowledge that fact. Yet to deny truth is to deny reality; and those who are reshaping the world in their image are making something monstrous, something we experience all around us, a world that seems rooted in relishing violence and human degradation.

Hustler: The Clinton L... Joseph Sobran Best Price: $13.69 Buy New $16.97 (as of 11:40 EDT - Details) In the essay that gave the book its tile, Sobran writes about the Columbine massacre and modern secular America:

Maybe the real trouble is that modern culture simply refuses to face the fact of evil. “If God does not exist,” as Dostoyevsky wrote, “everything is permitted.” As if to underline his words, one of the killers fatally shot a girl when she said she believed in God.

If God does not exist, right and wrong are reduced to subjective preferences; even human life loses its dignity. “Thou shalt not kill” means no more than “I hope I won’t get shot.” Laws become the amoral collective preferences of the majority.

But what if the killers, as at Littleton, are prepared to die in the course of their crimes? There are always those who won’t be deterred by laws. This is a fact of life. Christian culture has always recognized original sin, man’s eternal and irrational inclination to do wrong. But to the denizens of modern culture, the idea of original sin is nonsense.

Modern culture is a negative, not a positive thing. It’s what is left when you subtract Christianity from Christian culture—so it’s a barren, bloodless, desiccated, and uninspiring thing, sometimes called “secular humanism.”

Modern culture recognizes nothing above man, so there is nothing worth dying for and sacrifice is absurd. It recognizes no God and denies the soul, the afterlife, and ultimate justice. In a secularized universe, nobility and honor have no meaning. Neither does chastity. Yet these are virtues recognized by most other cultures. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought honor and chastity were worth dying for; they worshiped the virgin goddess Diana, and they praised the chaste matron Lucrece for killing herself, for honor’s sake, after having been raped.

Secularized culture, being negative, is only legalistic. It can’t move the heart or fill the imagination. It merely encourages grievances about an ever-widening range of supposed civil wrongs, under the general heading of “discrimination.” All social relations become legal and political relations.

We can even amend Dostoyevsky in light of the twentieth century: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted, especially to governments.” The state that recognizes no absolute right or wrong will keep trying to enlarge its own power, even to the point of declaring some people subhuman if they get in the way of social engineering or even personal pleasure… Alias Shakespeare Joseph Sobran Best Price: $1.36 Buy New $13.65 (as of 06:52 EDT - Details)

For some people, there may be something sweeter than sex: revenge. That was what drove the Littleton killers. And why not, if God does not exist? The Littleton killers were products of the very culture that is trying to disown them—a culture that has ignored Baudelaire’s words: “Satan’s cleverest wile is to convince us that he doesn’t exist.”

In a few short words, Sobran diagnosed both the evil of individual human beings and the inhuman agenda of the secular “state” and its controllers; moreover, he details the very human cost of such an ideology to the guilty and innocent alike.  Sobran also warned of the danger of the cult of Darwinism in his essay From Darwin to Kevorkian :

The word “evolution” is a synonym for development, but it also has approving overtones of improvement and “progress.” Our public schools, allegedly neutral about religion, teach children that they are the remote descendants of ape-like creatures, implying that they aren’t created in the image of God. So children routinely learn to think like materialists, even if their parents take them to church on Sundays.

Liberals generally favor the teaching of evolution precisely because it undermines Christian faith. But the theory of evolution naturally “evolved” not only into Marxism, which many liberals have sympathized with, but into Nazi racialism, which all liberals abhor. Yet Nazism is a more plausible extension of Darwinism than Marxism is.

If we human beings are soulless systems of matter, with no divine spark, it’s only sensible to believe that different races probably “evolved” at different rates in different environments. Why assume they all reached the biological finish line at exactly the same time?

Even the Spanish Inquisition, which liberals execrate, recognized that every defendant was owed an individual trial, because guilt was personal. As a result, it executed far fewer people than modern materialist states, whose “class” and “race” enemies were herded into boxcars. That Inquisition executed only a few thousand over three centuries. For Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, a few thousand victims was a slow month.

But eugenics—the science of racial improvement—is back, with genetic engineering, including experiments on human embryos and the use of fetal tissues. From the materialist standpoint, there is nothing wrong with destroying the human embryo or fetus, which, being mere matter at an early stage of development, has no “right” to exist. Subtracting Christiani... Joseph Sobran Best Price: $1,125.00 Buy New $24.95 (as of 11:04 EDT - Details)

“Rights,” after all, also “evolve.” They aren’t absolute. They are defined, as a practical matter, by political power. The materialist view is hostile to any sort of “absolute,” except political power itself. No wonder materialists have often supported totalitarian regimes, notably the Soviet Union. They also tend to favor the constant expansion of state power in the United States—and especially state-run education, at the expense of private and religious education.

Despite his immense popularity, I can’t imagine O’Reilly or any contemporary bestselling author writing anything like this; to the contrary, I suspect it’s impossible for his thinking to reflect such depth and sensitivity:

Next to a mushroom cloud, an abortion may seem a very small evil, and the painless killing of a suffering person who no longer wants to live may actually appear as an act of mercy. We have achieved both magnitude and refinement in homicide. This is progress, of sorts. And those who oppose all these forms of killing are called “reactionary.” They are said to be still living in the Dark Ages.

The Dark Ages are a myth. The long centuries between the fall of Rome and the full emergence of a Christian Europe were incomparably the greatest period of moral improvement in human history.

In the Classical world, such practices as infanticide, abortion, pederasty, slavery, suicide, and crucifixion were everyday facts of life.

Public entertainment in Rome included going to the Colosseum to watch gladiators kill each other or wild animals tear helpless people apart.

As Christianity gained ascendancy, all these things were abolished by law. By the end of the so-called Dark Ages they had been banned throughout Christendom and ceased to exist, except insofar as they could be performed illicitly. Until recently we took their non-existence so much for granted that we forgot our huge debt to the Dark Ages—the very name of which signifies our modern ingratitude.

The modern world has even come to define “progress” in terms of how far it departs from Christian morality. If Christianity condemns abortion, homosexual acts, and suicide, the secular law, which of course must not be contaminated by religious considerations, is to uphold them as “rights.” Even infanticide and pederasty are making a come-back, with advocates bidding for legal status. Meanwhile, modern war has far exceeded not only what was permissible but also what was conceivable in earlier times. The Cloak of Freya: Th... Yvonne Lorenzo Buy New $12.00 (as of 11:16 EDT - Details)

The modern world has inevitably tried to codify its rebellion against Christian morality as a “new” morality—a morality without piety, in which the ultimate criteria of the good are personal pleasure and subjective happiness. The result, just as inevitably, is a society of selfish people: more specifically, a society in which fathers refuse to take responsibility for their children. The children are then either aborted or left to grow up as they may (in which case they are likely to be even more irresponsible than their fathers).

The secret heart of the New Morality is the denial of the soul. If we are only flesh, our only happiness, our only destiny, is carnal. When there is no prospect of carnal satisfaction, the New Morality can prescribe no duty to go on living. Nor can it condemn abortion.

Least of all can it censure sexual license, which in fact it sees as the highest felicity available to human beings. It can comprehend neither chastity nor honor, let alone the relation between the two things. It can only suggest feebly that if you defer sexual pleasure for a while, or use birth control, you may have more pleasure in the long run. One can hardly imagine a more absurd way to try to instill self-control into flaming youth.

Sobran also writes about his encounter with the irrepressible Murray Rothbard: it would’ve been wonderful if they’d discussed theology and there was a record of such a conversation but this is a wonderful anecdote all the same:

In the late 1980s I began mixing with Rothbardian libertarians—they called themselves by the unprepossessing label “anarcho-capitalists”—and even met Rothbard himself. They were a brilliant, combative lot, full of challenging ideas and surprising arguments. Rothbard himself combined a profound theoretical intelligence with a deep knowledge of history. His magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State, had received the most unqualified praise of the usually reserved Henry Hazlitt—in National Review!

I can only say of Murray what so many others have said: never in my life have I encountered such an original and vigorous mind. A short, stocky New York Jew with an explosive cackling laugh, he was always exciting and cheerful company. Pouring out dozens of big books and hundreds of articles, he also found time, heaven knows how, to write (on the old electric typewriter he used to the end) countless long, single-spaced, closely reasoned letters to all sorts of people.

Murray’s view of politics was shockingly blunt: the state was nothing but a criminal gang writ large. Much as I agreed with him in general, and fascinating though I found his arguments, I resisted this conclusion. I still wanted to believe in constitutional government.  The Ruling Class: How ... Angelo M. Codevilla, R... Check Amazon for Pricing.

Murray would have none of this. He insisted that the Philadelphia convention at which the Constitution had been drafted was nothing but a “coup d’état,” centralizing power and destroying the far more tolerable arrangements of the Articles of Confederation. This was a direct denial of everything I’d been taught. I’d never heard anyone suggest that the Articles had been preferable to the Constitution! But Murray didn’t care what anyone thought—or what everyone thought. (He’d been too radical for Ayn Rand.)

Murray and I shared a love of gangster films, and he once argued to me that the Mafia was preferable to the state, because it survived by providing services people actually wanted. I countered that the Mafia behaved like the state, extorting its own “taxes” in protection rackets directed at shopkeepers; its market was far from “free.” He admitted I had a point. I was proud to have won a concession from him.

Murray died a few years ago without quite having made an anarchist of me. It was left to his brilliant disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to finish my conversion. Hans argued that no constitution could restrain the state. Once its monopoly of force was granted legitimacy, constitutional limits became mere fictions it could disregard; nobody could have the legal standing to enforce those limits. The state itself would decide, by force, what the constitution “meant,” steadily ruling in its own favor and increasing its own power. This was true a priori, and American history bore it out.

Sobran could write knowledgeably and with love and admiration for Shakespeare and Mozart, even on Homer and I think his enthusiasm and erudition are infectious; but I’ve included excerpts of his thought-provoking arguments on the degradation of our culture and the loss as we move away from a Christian heritage. He writes in tribute to C.S. Lewis powerful truths:

During World War II, Lewis realized that both the Allies and the Axis were abandoning the traditional morality of the Christian West and indeed of all sane civilizations. The great principle of this morality is that certain acts are intrinsically right or wrong. In a gigantic war among gigantic states, Lewis saw that modern science was being used amorally on all sides to dehumanize and annihilate enemies. When peace came, the victorious states would feel released from moral restraints.

Lewis cited an old theological question: “It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker [Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian], and against Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion … that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right.” It was dangerous to believe that sheer will, even God’s will, can be Son of Thunder: The Sp... Yvonne Lorenzo Best Price: $20.48 Buy New $10.50 (as of 11:16 EDT - Details) the ultimate source of right and wrong. Lewis saw a parallel danger in “the modern theory of sovereignty,” which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act of will: “On this view, total freedom to make what laws it pleases, superiority to law because it is the source of law, is the characteristic of every state; of democratic states no less than of monarchical. That doctrine has proved so popular that it now seems to many a mere tautology. We conceive with difficulty that it was ever new because we imagine with difficulty how political life can ever have gone on without it. We take it for granted that the highest power in the State, whether that power is a despot or a democratically elected assembly, will be wholly free to legislate and incessantly engaged in legislation.”

As a result of the theory of sovereignty, Lewis observed, “Rulers have become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.” As the state offers us less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Lewis was alarmed by another development we now take for granted: state control of education. He wrote: “I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

I confess my bias; yes, obviously O’Reilly’s books are and will be read by millions. Yet it is my fervent wish that more people discover the genius and good common sense of Joseph Sobran, not only defender of faith but of what truly matters—what is good and noble about humanity. Even now when so many individuals are governed by emotion and not reason and restraint and compassion, we need Sobran’s insight, wisdom and passion more than ever; his words (and you can see him on this YouTube) resonate through the years more powerfully than ever; if unlike Christ’s words to be eternal and never perish, Sobran’s are nevertheless words of truth and beauty that we are blessed to hear.