Reflections on the Moral and Political Work of Charles De Koninck

by Marcel de Corte[1]

Translation by Brian Welter[2]

I have known Charles De Koninck for a long time through his writings. I had the chance to speak with him more than once two years ago during my three-month stay as visiting professor at Laval University in Quebec City, where he teaches. Inconveniently, he was at this time a visiting professor at Notre Dame university in the United States. I could only see De Koninck during his rare visits back home. The few hours of perfectly emotional, intellectual, and spiritual communion that we passed together sealed a friendship that neither time nor distance could weaken.

We shared similar roots, as we came from rural areas of the same country. He was Flemish. I was a Walloon. We were reunited on this Canadian land where, I love to believe, the race of rustic French have left their definitive mark. What more did we need in order to feel an immediate connection? “Birth decides most everything,” Holderlin wrote. Life experience has proved to me that so-called “intellectuals” differ from one another according to whether their origins are urban or rural, aside from exceptions which are always possible in the human order that is characterized by the ut in pluribus. The solid realism that I discovered in De Koninck’s work before I met him gave me an impression of having direct contact with him as a person. Torhout and Genappe, our respective birthplaces, places of Flemish and Brabant work horses, offered the fraternal fragrance of lands freshly renewed in the early morning when the first sun drinks the night’s thick dew.

It is not surprising that De Koninck discovered a vocation as an Aristotelian and Thomist philosopher, and even a vocation as a theologian. This theology is rooted in the faith in the Eternal, not the uprooted theology of one who flutters about according to the ephemeral winds of “the era.” The farmer knows that if he contradicts the great permanent rhythms of nature and abandons himself to the “movement of history,” in other words to his inner dreams, he directly runs the risk of ruin.

Sensory experience is the sole path for us to attain the real. As soon as someone with a realist spirit deepens this sensory experience, he perceives with indisputable evidence that the apparent changes and multiplicity of his sensory data are regulated by eternal norms, which is to say, by invariable essences. The universe is not a chaos that orders itself according to human inspiration and decision. A subjective peasant, conversely, is a square circle, someone who infringes on the principle of contradiction. Charles De Koninck has never approached, from near or far, this nonsense.

Charles De Koninck is equally a traditionalist, a living traditionalist — which is rather rare — and, I would go so far as to say, a “bon vivant” traditionalist despite the vulgarity of the expression. We too often forget that laughter is also unique to man. True tradition is not at all gloomy. Tradition is life and joy because of its sap, which never stops flowing. Out of the entire work of De Koninck, a sort of alacrity bursts forth, a springtime spurt of growth that continues the research of the great philosophers of the past that he chose as masters and guides. As a good peasant, he is a man of what was, of what is, of what will be, of what will endure. He is, in other words, a paradox that is as Bergsonian as possible — what remains. And he is this because he knows that life renews itself continuously, that it extends itself like a young woodland, with a joy and strong assurance that dissipates all sullenness. In the intellectual and spiritual orders, this life gushes forth with the constants of the human spirit that always identify with this spirit despite “evolution.”

In dining with Charles De Koninck, surrounded by his many children and his wife, at his great house on rue Sainte-Geneviève, Québec City, where he is the patriarch, I could ascertain that he was a traditionalist at every level. This applies just as much at a great family meal, where, in La Varende’s words, “the gentle gaiety of the peasant races” reigns, as in his philosophy and theology. It is from tradition that Charles De Koninck draws his life and joy.

It is there also that Charles De Koninck, this Belgian, this Flamand, revealed himself to my eyes to be a real Canadian in the province of Quebec — because not having a foundation leaves a man dispirited. His strong roots predisposed him to achieving this effortlessly. This “emigrant” adapted himself to Canada to the point that he found it to be his true country. If he had remained in Belgium, his vigorous personality would have become clouded over. In French Canada, in contrast, it blossomed in every way. I believe that one needs an attractive vitality in order to succeed at such a transplantation. Only a strong individual could succeed at carving out a place for himself in only a few years, by remaking life, and not by leading the semblance of a life that is glazed over by wealth, in a country of immigrants. A great capacity for love is required to accomplish this incredible feat.

And I am not at all shocked that Charles De Koninck is universally considered, in French Canada and throughout the country, as a Canadian whose opinions and counsel are authoritative even in the so-called political spheres where philosophy has hardly any place. In his birth country, his influence would not have surpassed a tight circle of friends, such was the invidia[3] that was raging there. As Cardinal Villeneuve wrote in his preface to Charles De Koninck’s fine book, De la primauté du bien commun contre les personnalistes, this work “is not an ordinary book: It is pure wisdom.” Yes, it is true to say that Charles De Koninck is a wise man. That qualification, and less still the reality that this designates, is not found among the common man today.

The wise man considers beings from the light of first principles. Any one of Charles De Koninck’s books or articles will quickly show the reader that he has no other method because there simply is not any other. It is the very condition of man that, as soon as he starts to think, he suspends all thought of the transcendent. Now, against all modern thinking that assumes that man chooses his first principles, Charles De Koninck maintains, with unshakable firmness, that these are given to us. To think is to think something that does not depend on us, something that we have not made, something over which we have no power.

Charles De Koninck is resolutely thing-oriented.[4] There is a natural order to things which derive from the Author of nature. There is a supernatural order that comes from the Redeemer of nature, that comes from God. Nature, grace, and God are the first principles of wisdom. The modern world no longer admits this. It contrived other “first principles.” These all come down to the primacy of me, and are more or less camouflaged in sometimes contradictory masks, beneath which attentive observation can discern one and the same face. Larvatus prodeo. The modern world can only be the world of making because it refuses to be the world of givenness. It is a world of making in its desire to emancipate itself from nature, grace, and God. When there is no longer a given world, another one is found, another universe is produced.

This other universe is an unreal world; an imaginary world; an acosmic and inhuman world where the ghosts of men pretend to be and to live. Mundus est fabula, Descartes, the prince of fabricators, affirmed. Charles De Koninck tranquilly states that such a world does not exist, and that, as soon as it attempts to exist, it dedicates itself to deception, violence, revolution, and, ultimately, ruin. As it was dying, Nero’s world pronounced qualis artifex pereo.[5] Under the evil spell of making and the sovereign master ego, we negate the speculative order that enables us to attain better and higher realities than ours. This negation is the inevitable destruction of the real world.

With all of his life instinct, with all of his intelligence, Charles De Koninck refuses the modern temptation to negate. He accepts the given. This given contemplates speculative intelligence and allows man to completely order himself. You do not have to push Charles De Koninck too hard to get him to affirm that the origin of all the evils that we suffer from, of all the crises involving science, technology, morals, and society, stem from speculative errors. These errors originate from an ignorance of first principles.

The fact is as clear as day in the moral, political, or social domains, in which the smallest deviation from the level of principles “fatally leads to the most atrocious practical consequences.”

On this point, we are, in this year of disgrace, 1962, particularly submerged by the consequences. For my part, I have often written that modern man is faced with a crisis of finality without precedent in his history. No longer knowing who he is, ignorant of the fact that he is an intelligent soul incarnated in a body, mistreating the unity of his nature, he sets out pursuing one of the fragments of his dismantled being. He sometimes reaches it, though this is more often in his imagination. He substitutes the part for the whole and puffs himself up to bursting. He is nothing more than a mutilated ego, caught up in some type of totalitarianism.

Charles De Koninck demonstrated, with great metaphysical depth, that the various phases of this dislocation are the result of the tenacious contempt in which contemporary man, exalting himself or exalting the “great animal” of state that he parallels, holds the common good. The singular goodness of man does not derive from the goodness of any one part of his being, for which all other goods are therefore sacrificed. This is because he is never the total goodness of his essence or of his self-oriented nature that is directed towards the common good. In their desire for perfection, all things desire the good. The common good is the greatest good of particular being because it raises particular being up above its private good, to the level of the good of the city, the good of the species, and the absolute universal good which is God. It is therefore in pursuing the common good that the human being becomes what he truly is and that he achieves in himself the greatest good that he desires.

And this best good is not at all as such because its possession would be for the human being a greater good. It is the best because it is communicable to others. “To love the good of a city in order to appropriate it and possess it for oneself is not the work of good politics. It is in this way that the tyrant himself loves the good of the city in order to dominate it. This amounts to loving oneself more than the City,” writes St. Thomas justly. How many of our contemporaries, from the smallest to the greatest, are not branded with this diagnosis? In claiming to love their City, it is themselves alone that they love either secretly or ostentatiously. The common good is then nothing more than the caricature of the common good. They endorse this exclusive idea that only they understand. Whoever identifies himself with the City, with humanity, and, all the more, with God, is devoted to the tyranny thus imposed. This is according to the extent of the common good that has become a verb, a hollow word, that eats into and destroys the true common good. We can here cite countless names, both known and unknown.

We will not find anywhere in current philosophical theory, much less in political “theory,” a clearer and more precise condemnation of the diverse forms of the totalitarianism that raged throughout the twentieth century, from democracy to communism and through all of the colors of socialism from pink to red. With admirable sharpness, Charles De Koninck saw totalitarianism as the direct offshoot or the promotion of subjectivism and the will that modern man has to work to emancipate himself from the natural order and the common good. This is his first commanding principle. With the same penetration, Charles De Koninck discerned that this will to emancipation wore the mask of the common good. It distorted this good and transformed it from what it is into a pure mental abstraction, into a curtain of smoke. The time of Callicles, who dared to extol the will of naked power, has passed today. The passion to destroy the common good and “the other” to whom it can be communicated, hides itself under the impersonator of the common good itself. It is in the name of “love” for the City and in the name of “love” for humanity that crimes against others, the worst abuses, are carried out. These crimes injure the authentic common good to the point of death. New “Cities” are built on the ruins. Humanity “unites” in the massacres. And it is in the very name, the holy name of the love of God diluted in ideology, that a great many Christians, caught up in the new sophistry, endorse the “common good” that does not show its true face. These Christians condemn their brothers who, spe contra spem,[6] cling to the true common good of the City, humankind, and the universe. The planet is being ravaged by the backward truths to which Cardinal Villeneuve refers in his preface to Charles De Koninck’s book on the common good.

One wonders how such hypocrisy is possible. For my part, I don’t think that there are too many emulators of Tartufe today. Managing two distinct personalities at once, the egoist and the humanitarian, requires too much intelligence and temperament to be widespread. We are no longer in the Renaissance, even less in the classical age. As Charles De Koninck considers and proves, this perversion stems from the nature of contemporary intelligence. This intelligence is incapable of withstanding the brilliant light of the first principles. Though it remains intelligence even in this degradation, it justifies itself through quibbling and sophism. Belonging to the era of decadence, these are the only remaining paths open to modern intelligence.

No one dares utter me any more, and yet we baptise the worship of the self with a term that masks the weakness: “personalism” and “the dignity of the human person.” Far from being subordinated to nature, the human person, which is nature’s summit, would subordinate nature to itself. The person is a being-for-himself. He exists for the dignity of his own being. Contemporary Christians simply add that the person is only restricted by subordination to God, not to any other subordination. And this dependence with regards to God is not, in the personalist perspective, a given of human nature, but a fruit of human liberty that, withdrawn into his own immanence, discovers it reflexively as the possible term of his own decision. This is man’s greatness, it seems, to freely subordinate himself to God. Smallness is displayed as greatness, and weakness as power. There you have it.

Charles De Koninck does not find it difficult to denounce this sophistry and to hound the protean me in its countless attempts at flight when faced with the evidence. “The being-for-itself of every created person lives for its end, which is God. Nothing is anterior to this indissoluble being-for-itself-for-God. Nothing is able to dissolve it except evil. Because everything the person is comes from God, this created person has to progress towards his end in a direct movement.” Moreover, if the end dominates the action of the free agent, “he does not dominate the end that is taken as such.” This is inscribed in letters of fire in his nature. The personalist quibble does not for an instant withstand the speculative order’s first principle. In a formula that is admirable for its concision and impact, Charles De Koninck adds that “every view that is deliberately reflexive of the created person on himself is a bleak view and an aversion to God.” In other words, for lack of contemplating reality and its foundational principle, man becomes split. He arbitrarily rebuilds this reality in the interior of his separated ego, in complete opposition to ontology.

He transforms reality into a logical entity that no longer exists outside of his thought, into a being of reason with no more attachments to the real. This reality puts on any outer form according to the ego’s urges. This is the very definition of sophistry, bastardized reasoning, orphaned reasoning. This reasoning strives through an impossible parthenogenesis to bring about reality from an empty ego that has been handed over to its instincts, its disordered affectivity, its unconscious. This is the definition of man who has renounced his status as a reasonable being who is created to come to know the real. This is the definition of the weak who argue to infinity to appear strong. In such a person, philosophical appearance has taken the place of being. Instead of seizing reality via an idea, he merely has the idea before the eyes of his spirit. When one has reached that point, when one substitutes the term quo for the term quod, to speak in the rigorous language of the scholastics, there is only one issue, which is to fabricate another world from the idea. Poetical activity — in the etymological sense of the term — completely eliminates the spirit’s speculative activity. The real world and its principle disappear for the benefit of a world built in which the ego reigns. When one starts from the ego, one ends only with the ego, regardless of the deception that is adopted to evade the consequences of the fatal speculative error that is committed by the weakness at the origin.

Charles De Koninck pursues the personalist deviation in his last arguments where this deviation considers itself the strongest because it has the support of an unbalanced public opinion. “It is claimed that the good of an accidental whole is inferior to the good of a substantial whole. Now society is an accidental being and is one only by accident. Therefore, the common good has to be subordinated to the good of the person.” Response: “This difficulty supposes a false notion of the common good. Indeed, the common good does not formally see society as this latter is an accidental whole. It is the good of substantial wholes that are the members of society. But it is only the good of these substantial wholes as much as these are members of society.” These words suffice to eliminate the pretense of all the parasites who, under the cover of an ambiguous personalism, refuse life’s risks and demand that society procure for them “happiness” like indoor plumbing and heating. Man is by nature an animal made to live in the City and to serve the common good. When this obvious notion of the political animal ontologically oriented towards the general interest is lost, all of society staggers towards serving particular interests and personalism reveals itself as the vestibule of “socialization”. Yet again, the speculative error has produced a monster in practical terms.

Personalism’s inevitable shift to socialism and communism is, moreover, underscored by Marx, as Charles De Koninck notes: socialism’s supreme end is the confusion of the common good and the single good, the fabrication of the individual as the first principle of the social order. This achievement requires the step of integral collectivization, “a brotherhood of men, born from self-love and the need for an anonymous, blind, and violent power, for the actualization of the ego which is its own end.” Personalism moves towards communism, and communism returns to personalism. Impii in circuitu ambulant.

The conclusion is obvious: Modern philosophy developed outside of natural truth, that is, outside of philosophy. It is nothing but sophistry that makes men “skilled at speaking and acting” (deinous legein kai prattein), with all the consequences that such a perversion of intelligence produces. But noticing this requires a return to the first principles of wisdom. Charles De Koninck courageously did this, first of all, through doctrine and health. The two precepts are indissolubly linked. To think correctly, one has to heal, and to heal, one has to think correctly, without worrying about the sophists and by firmly putting them back in their place when necessary.

Charles De Koninck’s entire work is therefore centered on what modern man lacks the most: the health of intelligence procured by the only food that can nourish it: reality grasped in its essence and in its principles.

[1] From the September–October 1962 issue of Itinéraires, devoted to the life and writings of philosopher Charles De Koninck. Thanks to Alexandros Barbas of Arouca Press for arranging the translation.

[2] Brian Welter teaches advanced high school reading and writing. He is interested in French literature, medieval history and aesthetics. He has a BA in history and degrees in theology, including the DTh. He also has a graduate diploma in teaching English. In addition to French, he reads Italian, German, and Latin. He has translated Salazar and His Work: Essays on Political Philosophy by Marcel de Corte, Pierre Gaxotte, and Gustave Thibon (Arouca Press, 2021). He is also the translator of Le Latin Immortel (Eternal Latin) by Marie-Madeleine Martin and is currently translating into English a selection of pastoral letters from St. Ezequiel Moreno y Díaz from the original Spanish and the new German edition. Both books are forthcoming from Arouca Press.

[3] Latin for envy. Translator’s note.

[4] The French word is “chosiste.”

[5] “Such a great artist dies!” Translator’s note.

[6] “Hoping against hope.” Translator’s note.