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On June 22, 1983 I was on the campus of Boston College, engrossed in an afternoon session on Lonergan’s then-unpublished “Essay in Circulation Analysis, the economics section of that year’s Lonergan Workshop.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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Eric Voegelin: no debate without accord on existential order

“What ‘banged’?”

That was Eric Voegelin‘s derisive reaction 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.)

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 its 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 him 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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