May 8, 1948
You say in your letter: “It almost seems as if nobody, dead or alive, ever did know or does know how Capitalism really works, except Me.” Does it really seem to you that I have not been born yet? It seems to me that I was born as long as 43 years ago, and it almost seems that you had noticed the fact.
It was from my theory of ethics that you learned why the morality of altruism and sacrifice is evil and improper to man. Until I explained my theory to you, you believed—as you told me—that the morality of altruism was proper, but men were not good enough for it. I am very happy that you learned from me an idea of philosophical importance, just as I learned many important ideas from you. But what am I to think of your intellectual accuracy, if—in a discussion of the relation between Capitalism and the morality of sacrifice—you tell me that you are the only one who understands how Capitalism works?
You say (about the Catholic political philosophy): “So don’t ask me how they come to do that; ask yourself.” I never asked you once in my whole letter how the Catholics came to do that. I know how. The only questions in my letter were about your attitude, not theirs.
Yes, I remember your telling me that you could never be converted to Catholicism. I did not say or imply that I thought you were in agreement with the Catholics. I merely wondered, and still do, why you gave a sympathetic consideration to Catholic philosophy as such.
I asked you once why you did not endorse books favorable to Capitalism if they contained minor errors while the major part of their content was good. You told me that there is no such thing as a minor error in this issue, and I had to agree with you. That is why I was
philosophically curious about your attitude toward the Catholic philosophy—since their error is not minor, but just about the biggest and most pernicious error one could preach.
You say that I paid no attention to what you really said, because you did not say that the Church knew consciously what it was preaching about Capitalism. Here is exactly what you said: “In a queer subconscious way, it would almost seem that the Church knows what Capitalism really is better than the Capitalists, realizing that Capitalism does not operate by sacrifice!” My letter was based, not on this sentence, but on your next paragraph in which you described the Church’s political philosophy: that an ideal political form is impossible to man because human nature is not perfect. That paragraph dealt with their philosophy, not their subconscious.
Furthermore, I question the meaning of the term “subconscious ideas.” No one has given a clear definition or explanation of just what is the mental process whereby one holds an idea subconsciously. As near as I can understand the term, I think it means a state of mental fudging.
If it is pretty much inexcusable for plain, everyday people to relegate their convictions to some sort of semiconscious haze, it is completely inexcusable for philosophers. If the Catholic political philosophy contains all the elements which add up to opposing Capitalism because it makes man happy, but they have not consciously admitted to themselves that that is what it adds up to—it does not make them any the less guilty. Their philosophy still adds up to it.
Here is a paragraph of your letter which baffled me. You seem to reproach me for saying that I regret having given “those people” any sort of respect or consideration, and you say: “Who are ‘those people’? Human beings? Man, in brief? Can you indict such a considerable number of the human race, including some of the greatest minds the human race has exhibited, without certain implications as to the human race itself?” Why, yes, I certainly can. It is possible that the entire human race, with the exception of me, might become collectivist—and I will then damn the whole bunch of them, without damning man as such. I do not form my conception of the nature of man by counting numbers. (By “those people” I meant Catholic thinkers as such.)
I am still more baffled by another paragraph of your letter: “There is an odd look about this sentence of
yours: ‘If I were to select one idea as the most depraved ever conceived by man, that (Original Sin) is the one I would pick.’ You are sort of bringing Original Sin in by the back door while you throw it out of the front, or vice versa, I don’t know which, with the ‘depraved idea conceived by man’.” This is where I just sit and stare at the words. As near as I can guess at what you mean, it seems to me that you are speaking of morality in some sort of deterministic terms. Did you mean that if man can conceive a depraved idea, he must be essentially depraved? I have always understood morality to apply only to the actions open to man’s choice. I have always thought that morality cannot be divorced from free will. Therefore, man’s essential nature is his ability to conceive a good idea or a depraved one. The nature of a being endowed with free will is that he is capable of both good and evil and must make the choice. If he is essentially incapable of evil, then he is good automatically, by predetermination, good without any choice about it—and if so, then he is outside the realm of morality. A robot, capable only of “good” (?) actions, is neither good nor evil. The fact that man can conceive a depraved idea does not make man depraved by nature. It merely leaves him what he is—free. He cannot be guilty by potentiality. He becomes guilty only by the choices he makes—if and when he chooses evil. If the whole human race, except one, chooses evil—this cannot make the one guilty, too. A being of free will has to be judged by his own record. Man has no predetermined moral character—that would be a contradiction in terms. Every man creates his own moral character by the choices he makes.
The idea of Original Sin simply damns man for the fact of possessing free will. Apparently he was perfect before the fall, because he was a moral robot, and became evil by acquiring the faculty of moral choice. That depraved notion is simply the condemnation of free will as an evil.
I don’t remember the letter which you sent me from Ridgefield about Original Sin. I’m sorry if I forgot it. I remember only one conversation of ours on the question of Original Sin. It was in your house in Ridgefield. I remember the gist of it very clearly. You explained to me that since every man is potentially capable of evil, this constitutes his Original Sin. I asked you why the same reasoning did not apply to man’s good. Since every man is potentially capable of the highest virtues, why isn’t he also given credit for an Original Virtue? The conversation ended on that. You did not answer. I believed that you were thinking it over, and I thought that you had accepted my argument as valid. We never discussed it since.
You say that the doctrine of Total Depravity is Lutheranism and predestinate damnation is Calvinism. You add that “you ought to get your creeds straight.” Here is where I can accuse you of not reading my letter exactly. Here is what I said: “But when a school of thought rejects a social system which has been demonstrated in theory and in practice to be the best, then it can mean only that that school of thought holds man as essentially depraved, irremediably depraved, as far as his earthly existence is concerned.” I did not say here that that is what the Catholics say they preach. I said that that is what their theory means. Whether they admit it or not, the meaning is still there. Also I made it a point to say, “as far as his earthly existence is concerned.” This is where I did have my creeds quite straight. I know that the Catholics do not preach total depravity in the theological sense; they hold that man can be redeemed in the hereafter. But their social philosophy for man on earth makes him depraved in the terms of his earthly existence and for the duration of it. Which is all I am concerned with.
The political intention which I gather from the recent writings of Catholics is quite clear to me. And I am very good at catching that sort of intention—I was trained in it by experts, I have seen it in Soviet universities. The intention is this: Instead of realizing that it would be destroyed under any form of modern Statism, the Catholic Church sees in the return of Statism a chance to re-establish the union of Church and State. It hopes to have a form of Statism run by the Church—which simply means that it hopes for a return of the days of the Inquisition.
I forgot to mention a sentence of Frank’s which, I think, covers my opposition to the Catholic philosophy much better than all my long discussions. We were discussing the subject once, and I was saying that it seems as if Catholics do not want man to be happy on earth. Frank said: “Oh, sure, they want you to pursue happiness—but never to catch it.”
Now to conclude with a cleaner subject, by which I mean my new novel, you say that you don’t think the human race has consciously penalized virtue for being virtue, but that they do penalize it. Well, here again I question the exact meaning of an “unconscious” attitude. I cannot speak with absolute certainty about the minds of other people, but I can say that by observing their actions I have concluded that they do penalize virtue consciously. If this subject interests you, I can give you the specific examples that made me conclude it.
Well, is this enough for one letter? Apart from
philosophies, everything is going very well here. Frank was relieved to hear that the mice and rabbits had ruined the star magnolia which he had hurt by accident. He says he no longer feels like a rat about it. He is doing wonders with his flowers here, and our garden is really magnificent. Everything is still going perfectly at the studio, and I hope it will continue this way.
Love from both of us,
The Estate of Isabel Paterson has asked that the following excerpt from Paterson’s reply of May 13, 1948, be reprinted: “No, my dear, I never did tell you that I ‘believed that the morality of altruism was proper, but men were not good enough for it.’ That is what numerous people have believed and do believe, but not what I ever believed…. I always thought that proposition was a manifest absurdity—it would be an absurdity for any kind of morality, a contradiction in terms—and how could it be a morality, a rule of conduct for human beings, if human beings were incapable of practising it? As well say sawdust is a proper diet for human beings only they can’t digest it….”