Authoritarian Logic and the Transition from Aquinas to Ockham

I'm not generally the sort to be found reading spiritual texts. Hence it is somewhat surprising that I've recently co-edited a volume on Karl Barth's spiritual writings. But, as luck / fate / providence would have it, I recently dug out of the to-read pile this volume on acedia.

Demythologized (as it were), we're really talking about reflections on the meaningfulness of life and especially about how it can be challenging to find it meaningful. For whatever reason, I read this in the space of two afternoons with temperatures hanging around triple digits in Central Missouri while in the middle of a week of outdoor living at Boy Scout camp. What follows is a passage that jumped out at me. As usual, italics are original to the text and bold is mine.

Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil of Our Times (Ignatius Press, 2015), pp. 99–101.

Ockham views freedom as the exercise of spontaneous and arbitrary will out of a posture of true indifference. Anything that gets in the way of that indifference consequently short-circuits freedom, even one’s natural inclinations toward this or that. In order to combat this arbitrariness,

an external, extrinsic element is necessary… This element is the law. But what law? Ockham replies: God’s law. In fact, confronting human freedom there is another freedom, divine freedom, which is the epitome of indifference. Ockham pushes his argument still further. God decreed the commandments in the Decalogue ‘by indifference’. He could have decreed something else. He could have said: ‘thou shalt kill’, ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’, and then that is what would have been (99) necessary to do! This gives rise to the morality of obligation, legalism. … Man acts in terms of a law that is no longer inscribed within him but is totally external and foreign to him, a law that is totally arbitrary, which man can carry out only by God’s decree.

… What changes…is the reason why we do this. We no longer obey the Decalogue because there is some goodness intrinsic to the commandment. We obey the Decalogue simply because God commands it, independently of any value that is good in itself.* As you can guess, once God’s authority is called into question, everything will collapse. People will go so far as to ask: ‘Who is God to impose that on me?’ In rejecting God’s authority, they will end up rejecting the cogency of the divine law and, finally, they will call into question the goodness and relevance of God’s commandments. They will then turn to the law of men or, more precisely, to the law of the strongest.

This is the rise of authoritarianism. From now on every authority will be tempted to think that whatever it requires is good, by reason of the very fact that it requires it. The authority will then have great difficulty in calling itself into question. The risk of a sectarian or dictatorial trend is significant. If the law of the strongest is the criterion for the good, dictatorship is practically inevitable, and any (100) questioning of the law in terms of a superior Law is considered by the authority to be a threat or even a crime.

*[WTM note--see this post: Ellen Charry on Two Types of Divine Commands.]

For further reading, see “The Church and Totalitarianism” (242–45) in Karl Barth: Spiritual Writings.


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