Bernard Lonergan’s “Insight”: on becoming an intellectually fulfilled theist

“Well, they’re deductivists. And you know what I think of deductivists.”

That’s how Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J. (1904-1984) answered when I asked him about the Austrian school of economics.

Yes, I did know what he thought of them. More on that presently.

On June 22, 1983 I was on the campus of Boston College, engrossed in an afternoon session on Lonergan’s then-unpublished “Essay in Circulation Analysis, the economics section of that year’s Lonergan Workshop. (An unofficial edition circulated among Lonerganians.) My aunt, the late Anne T. Flood, Sister of Charity, Ph.D. (Catholic University of America; dissertation on Bishop Christopher Butler and Lonergan) beckoned me from the hallway.

Would I like to meet the great man?

I didn’t return to the classroom.

Patricia “Pat” Coonan, who had known Lonergan since 1945, drove us from Chestnut Hill to Weston, where he was convalescing at the Campion Center. When we arrived, it wasn’t certain that Lonergan was up to a visit. We might have to turn around.

But soon he was ready [my diary shows] and greeted us [from his hospital bed] with a smile. Pat introduced me to the master, and I managed to comport myself properly. I did not interview him, but I did tell him about myself, what his work has meant to me, and even raised the question [of] macroeconomics with him when Pat brought up her difficulties with the “Circulation Analysis.” Lonergan stressed his own macroeconomic approach, not seeming to be aware that [Ludwig von] Mises’ and [Murray N.] Rothbard’s “microeconomic” approach has addressed the “Depression” argument against the free market.

Image result for bernard lonerganIn the aftermath of the Great Depression, immersed in theological studies and spiritual formation between his profession of vows in 1924 and ordination in 1936, Lonergan produced that manuscript. In the ‘70s, after his methodological work was done, he returned to it.

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Sidney Hook: a halfway house for a recovering Stalinist

“That monster!”

Such was Herbert Aptheker’s reaction when I mentioned my having enrolled in “The Philosophy of History and Culture,” a course to be taught by his nemesis, Sidney Hook (1902-1989).  That was in 1972. I was a New York University (NYU) philosophy undergraduate. The class would be Hook’s last in an NYU teaching career that began in 1926 (including chairing its philosophy department from 1948 to 1969).Picture

I was checking in with Aptheker, the Communist historian, literary executor of W. E. B. Du Bois and, at the time, my “boss,” at his AIMS office to see if he had research tasks for me. The casual announcement was my idea of chit-chat.

Herbert ApthekerEarlier that year I had dropped into Hook’s office at 25 Waverly Place to ask about the class. As a young Red, I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet this infamous anti-communist in the flesh.

A letter of mine in support of Angela Davis, then on trial for aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder, appeared recently in the student newspaper. I had forgotten about it.

After a few minutes of chit-chat I rose and turned to leave. But before reaching the door . . . 

“What did you say your name was?”

Busted. I complied.

“This should be very interesting.”

“Yes,” I muttered.

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Eric Voegelin: no debate without accord on existential order

“What ‘banged’?”

That was the derisive reaction of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) to someone’s mentioning the prevailing cosmology, the Big Bang theory (not to be confused with the television comedy whose theme song’s lyrics encapsulate the disordered cosmology Voegelin analyzed*).

He asked that rhetorical question on March 26, 1983 in Newton, Massachusetts during a Friday night-Saturday afternoon conference arranged by organizers of the annual Lonergan Workshops. (During that year’s meeting in June I’d meet Bernard J. F. Lonergan, SJ, whose mind I revered as much as Voegelin’s.)voegelin

Being a Rothbardian libertarian, I could hardly resist asking Voegelin about the seminars that Ludwig von Mises led in Vienna in the twenties. Smiling, Voegelin said he appreciated learning from Mises that inflation is not an increase in prices but rather the central bank’s increase in the money supply not commensurate with an increase in production of commodities. (A government may politically “freeze” prices, but then the economic effect of the inflation, that is, of the physical increase, is a shortage of the goods whose prices were frozen.) 

At the cocktail hour I asked Voegelin (I paraphrase from memory) how he could communicate with scholars whose grasp of the historical material was far below his (among whom he did not number Father Lonergan, but I certainly include myself). “With a kind of controlled irony,” he deadpanned. 

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Herbert Aptheker: Apothecary for a Red Teenager

In the early 1970s, I was an acolyte of Herbert Aptheker (1915-2003). Known for his writings on African-American history he was also, during the Cold War, a theoretician of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). 

While many of my contemporaries became hooked on pharmaceuticals or alcohol, the apothecary for this teenage rebel was an apologist for the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev. Memories of the five years of my Stalinist sojourn are still a source of shame, even though more than eight times that interval has passed.

In November 1969 an ad in the Communist Party’s Daily World newspaper caught my eye. (Why I was reading that rag as a high school junior is a tale for another time.) Later that week Aptheker was scheduled to lecture on W.E.B. DuBois at the Center for Marxist Education (CME), then located on Manhattan’s West 15th Street, on the same block as my Jesuit military high school. (That building, now a co-op, abuts a 21st-century extension of my pre-Civil War alma mater.)

The evening arrived. Exiting the elevator on the fourth floor I made a right turn into the main room. CPUSA General Secretary Gus Hall, who would welcome me into the Party in less than three years, addressed the group of about 75. Then he introduced Dr. Herbert Aptheker.

I remember nothing of the lecture’s content. (I hadn’t then even heard of Du Bois.) The lecturer’s command of his material, however, and the aplomb with which he delivered it impressed this most impressionable of young minds. (One can hear how he sounded then by listening  to this February 18, 1968 Du Bois lecture.) Conservative in fashion and demeanor, Aptheker, then 54, had a military bearing and matching haircut. Appearing to me to be more learned than any five of my teachers or adult relatives combined, he held me spellbound for over an hour. 

I bought Aptheker’s books and pamphlets by the bushel by heading east from my high school across Union Square and entering the CPUSA’s Jefferson Book Shop on 16th Street, just east of Union Square. I scooped up everything of his I could and made time to absorb every line. While I now recognize Aptheker’s political essays as essentially propaganda, they then modeled for me the finest prose. They made the power of rhetoric a topic for me. For the first time I thought, “I’d like to be a writer!”

As Director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies (AIMS) Aptheker had an office on East 30th Street. Visiting it one day I introduced myself as a member of the Young Workers Liberation League, the latest edition of the Young Communist League. I took advantage of AIMS’s library of Marxism (mostly its Stalinist subdivision). Whenever school was out, I’d make my way to AIMS and get lost in its shelves. Taking a break from reading, I’d catch Aptheker typing with two fingers, the aroma of coffee and hamburger wafting into the reading room outside his office. With trepidation at first, I’d ask him a question. 

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Kaepernick’s Du Bois Medal: How Fitting

I don’t know whether any recipients of this year’s W. E. B. Du Bois Medal, to be awarded tonight at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, care to qualify their admiration of the medal’s namesake. Probably not. And that’s understandable, given his many notable accomplishments over the course of 95 years. 

The least likely to demur, I’ll bet, is “athlete and activist” Colin Kaepernick. A man who has a tee shirt adorned with photos of Fidel Castro chatting with Malcolm (“By any means necessary”) X probably has no reservations about getting a Du Bois Medal, certainly not any more than that “Un-American” scholar and civil rights activist had about his 1959 International Lenin Prize

The Castro regime may have been responsible for murdering anywhere from 35,000 to 141,000 souls (with a median of 73,000), but the enormity of Joseph Stalin’s reign exceeded Fidel’s by orders of magnitude: its unit of measure is “tens of millions.”

The breadth of Stalin’s mass murder, rivaled in the last century only by Hitler’s and Mao’s, could have been ascertained in 1953 by any competent researcher like Du Bois. Yet that was the year Du Bois penned a defense of Stalinism in the form of a eulogy upon the passing of Koba the Dread.  

“Joseph Stalin,” Du Bois wrote, “was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature.”

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“By any means necessary”: pragmatism on stilts

Malcolm X’s contribution to the erosion of American political rhetorical standards lives on, most recently in President Trump’s speech at a rally in Tennessee. But at least he was characterizing the expediency of his enemies.

In 1963 Communist-sympathizer Jean-Paul Sartre penned the words that in English become “by any means necessary.”

Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Ernesto Che Guevara, 1960, Cuba



Their African-American popularizer employed it to everlasting effect the following year. (He was assassinated the next.)

Conflating the necessary with the sufficient, it’s literally nonsense. “Any” doesn’t go with “necessary.”

There is, for example, more than one way to get to Times Square from Grand Central. One can walk a few blocks; or hop on the westbound M42 bus; or take the subway, either the shuttle (one stop) or the No. 7 (two). Each of them will do, but none of them is necessary.

The seductive power of the phrase overrides logic. “By the one means necessary” or “by any means sufficient” lacks punch.What the hackneyed phrase’s users mean is: “What I want is imperative, and whatever achieves it is permissible.” “Whatever it takes,” or “The end justifies the means,” which evacuates “justifies” of meaning.

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