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O’Connor and the History of Political Philosophy

O’Connor And The History Of Political Philosophy

In her prefatory note to the second edition of Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor claims that she is “congenitally innocent of theory” and that her preoccupation as a writer is with “belief in Christ” which she calls “a matter of life and death.”1 Such remarks might make it appear strange to claim, as I do in this book, that O’Connor had a broad understanding of the history of political philosophy and that her knowledge in this regard is evident in her fiction. Indeed, O’Connor’s stories become all the more rich and enticing as one becomes aware of the ways in which she is responding to political ideas from ancient, medieval, and modern thinkers. She was innocent of theory in the sense that she had no systematic political theory of her own, but that did not stop her from understanding the teachings and theories of several of the seminal figures of the history of political thought. This is not to say that political philosophy was her chief concern; rather, nothing was more central to the meaning of her two novels and most of her short stories than the encounter her characters have with divine grace. But like a good Thomist, she was able to see the implications faith, or the lack thereof, has on the way people approach philosophy, psychology, history, and—most important for purposes of this study—politics.

Any attempt to get at the meaning of O’Connor’s stories has to begin with their Catholic ethos. “I write with a solid belief in all the Christian dogmas,” O’Connor wrote to her friend Shirley Abbott, adding that faith does not set limits on her freedom but instead increases her vision.2 She believed that the vision of the author is crucial for communicating meaning: “The novelist doesn’t write to express himself, he doesn’t write simply to render a vision he believes true, rather he renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to his reader.”3 In an age of Christian belief, readers will not be surprised to find an author who sees the world with the eyes of faith, but O’Connor did not live in such an age. She could not expect an audience that believed in the Incarnation or the Resurrection, even among those who went to church or read the Bible. Nevertheless, she believed that she had a vocation to write and therefore had to render her vision, deeply informed by the intellectual tradition spurred by Catholic Tradition, to an unbelieving audience, much like a prophet who has been given both a message and the responsibility of sharing it with a community that is not prepared to be receptive or grateful. Getting such an audience to listen is a great challenge, and in the case of a writer like O’Connor, the challenge can only be met by first understanding the habits of mind generally embraced by the community one is trying to instruct.

Though she is unmistakably southern, O’Connor writes her stories more generally for citizens of the American regime. The fact that her thinking is so thoroughly shaped by Catholicism, a faith not limited to one particular region, no doubt plays an important role in giving her stories broader appeal than more decidedly southern writers like Robert Penn Warren or Shelby Foote. But this is only a partial explanation of O’Connor’s wide and enduring influence. Most of her characters are southern, but her long-time editor and friend Robert Giroux was, I think, correct when he claimed that O’Connor was “as American as one can be.”4 Perhaps she would have been reluctant to accept this moniker from Giroux, but if so she was also less enthusiastic about her southern heritage than many from the Agrarian school, some of whom were her teachers and friends. O’Connor was ultimately more concerned with her citizenship in what she often called her true country, which was beyond the temporal disputes between those who lived on different sides of the Mason-Dixon Line—and all other temporal disputes for that matter. To her mind, the most important question is that of salvation, an issue that knows no geographical boundary, yet something about the modern political philosophy that shaped the language, habits, and manners in America led southerners and Yankees alike to disregard the state of their souls. She recognized that the United States of the mid-twentieth century is animated by the modern teachings of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Americans of all regions tend to look like manifestations of the ideas of one or more of these thinkers regardless of which side of the Potomac or the mighty Mississippi they call home. And though O’Connor’s own experiences were mostly shaped by the South, it is worth remembering that in the still formative years of her intellectual maturity she went to graduate school in Iowa and lived for a time in both New York City and rural Connecticut before her illness brought her to the dairy farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia, where she did most of her writing while living with her mother. She had firsthand experience observing how Americans in different parts of the country live and she recognized similarities that transcend region, helping her to connect with a larger audience. By region she was a southerner, but she wanted her stories to reach all Americans.

What O’Connor wanted to awaken in her readers was the lost awareness of a great mystery, one that was once honored in Western culture but now, because it is beyond the reach of modern scientific explanation, is generally dismissed from public life. The common embrace of religious belief has been replaced by a common acceptance of nihilism that threatens the souls of those living in modern regimes such as that of the United States. In a letter to her friend John Hawkes, O’Connor explained the urgency of the matter and the role literature can play in making her fellow Americans aware of the spiritual peril they face. She says, “I don’t think you should write … around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.”5 Elsewhere she refers to this as the air of nihilism, and that even within the Church “it’s the gas you breathe.”6 But where did this gas come from that makes it so difficult to find meaning in life or to believe in a life hereafter? Perhaps if one could find the reason why nihilism is so prevalent in our culture then one could be better prepared to protect oneself, to help one’s friends, and identify the challenges facing religious belief for all Americans. To write stories about the gravest concern facing citizens of modern regimes, O’Connor understood that her own vision had to be informed by the history of political philosophy, the study of which helped her understand the source and alternatives to nihilism.

Political philosophy, classically understood, is the search for wisdom about the human person and the community necessary for a complete and good life. The word politics comes from the Greek polis, which was a self-sufficient political city, similar to the self-sufficient nation-states that govern the world today. Socrates is regarded as the first philosopher to turn his attention to questions of the polis, or more generally the political community, and the ways in which it shapes the aspirations, views, and manners of citizens. Socrates did not commit to writing his thoughts on political philosophy or any other subject; the two most well-known thinkers to do so from the ancient world are Plato and Aristotle, whose respective political writings (dialogues like The Republic in the case of Plato and treatises like The Politics in the case of Aristotle) initiated an academic discipline that continues to this day—the study of different forms of constitutions, or regimes. The history of that study, most scholars of Western ideas would agree, involves a long development of the ancient understanding of politics into the Christian medieval era and then a sudden dismissal of that tradition by some of the leading thinkers of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are generally viewed as offering the most articulate accounts of political life by Christian philosophers, building upon the ancient view that politics is about cultivating virtue in citizens and seeking the common good according to a standard that transcends the temporal community. Machiavelli is the most recognizable early-modern thinker to question this approach and substitute a view that takes its bearings from concrete human appetites, particularly the desire to acquire, rather than from what reason and faith define as the good life. René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and others advanced theories of political life that built upon the Machiavellian insight until Friedrich Nietzsche declares the whole project of modernity, and indeed Western civilization, a bust for having destroyed meaning in public life. Rather than returning to the classical notion of political thought, Nietzsche calls for a new, creative politics to replace the nihilism of that pervades modern life, opening the door for experimental regimes unhinged from classical and Christian ideas about virtue and politics. O’Connor was familiar with the broad outlines of this history and her fiction incorporates the ideas of several of its most recognizable contributors.

If O’Connor were asked to give her own account of this history, she would do so in terms of the relationship between faith and reason. The ancients wrote on politics prior to the advent of Christianity, and therefore without faith in a personal God that transcends all political communities. Nonetheless, reason led them to understand that something was higher than the political—truth, goodness, beauty. Saints Augustine and Aquinas admired ancient philosophy, finding that it complemented divine revelation. The relationship between faith and reason, however, was challenged first by the Protestant Reformation, which looked upon politics (and much else) mostly from the side of faith with less regard for discursive reasoning, or at least less interest in seeking wisdom outside the Bible. Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others typically thought of as early modern philosophers went in the opposite direction of the Reformers, for they looked upon politics without much interest in faith. The split became most complete in Nietzsche’s writings, which famously announced the death of God.

O’Connor’s stories are mostly about modern Americans caught in the gap modernity opens between faith and reason. In a few cases, like that of Sarah Ruth from “Parker’s Back,” we see Protestants who accept the Bible as revelation but have little use, if any, for reason. Most of her characters, however, embrace a modern conception of political life severed from revelation. As will be reflected upon in later chapters, O’Connor describes three modern attitudes: those who elevate humanity to the level of God; those who cannot fathom a tangible, personal God; and those who do not believe in divinity and yet cannot help but search for some higher meaning.7 These descriptions of the modern mind roughly map onto the categories often used to describe stages in the modern history of political thought. Making humanity the standard for all things is like the early-modern positivism of Machiavelli; the impersonal conception of God mirrors the later-modern romanticism of Rousseau; and atheistic attitude that cannot accept a world without meaning looks a lot like the late- or post-modern nihilism of Nietzsche.8 One way of appreciating the drama of O’Connor’s stories is to see her characters discover the shortcomings of whatever version of modern political philosophy happens, either deliberately or unconsciously, to animate their lives. Mr. Fortune’s positivism, Ashbury Fox’s romanticism, and Hulga’s nihilism are all challenged by a reality that O’Connor thinks is better understood by classical and, even more so, medieval political philosophy.

Others have noticed O’Connor’s interest in aspects of political philosophy. Henry Edmondson’s Return to Good and Evil provides a compelling account of her use of literature to respond to the nihilism in which she found her country engulfed.9 Edmondson’s more recent Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor contains fifteen essays by accomplished scholars who address O’Connor’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement, illustrate her relationship to other thinkers, and point out ways in which the citizens of the twenty-first century will continue to benefit from reading her stories.10 The essay in that volume by John Roos about “The Displaced Person,” much like his earlier essay on “A View of the Woods,” is noteworthy for its interpretation of O’Connor’s work in light of political philosophy.11 Avis Hewitt and Robert Donahoo’s volume Flannery O’Connor in the Age of Terrorism and Jon Lance Bacon’s Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture also show the continued relevance of O’Connor’s stories for our contemporary political culture.12 Ralph Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South shows how O’Connor’s stories confront the religious and political culture of the American South; Wood’s analysis often draws from O’Connor’s understanding of important philosophic thinkers, such as Descartes and Nietzsche.13 Also related is John Desmond’s Risen Sons, which shows how O’Connor’s Catholicism shaped her view of history, which, as with her view of politics, follows a more medieval integration of philosophy and theology that is typically rejected by modern thought.14

I seek here to add to these and similar works by showing O’Connor’s knowledge of the particular ideas of several seminal thinkers of the history of Western political thought, from Plato through Nietzsche. The main evidence offered is found in the stories themselves. Sometimes O’Connor simply names a thinker, as she does in “The Partridge Festival” when Mary Elizabeth and Calhoun bring Singleton a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. Other times thinkers are quoted, such as Heidegger in “Good Country People” or Thomas Aquinas in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Most often, however, the presence of an idea or theory associated with a particular political thinker is far more subtle. For example, the fact that Mr. Fortune beats a woman in “A View of the Woods” gives us a clue that the story somehow involves the thought of Machiavelli, who in The Prince infamously calls fortune a woman that must be beaten.15 In one way or another, nearly all of O’Connor’s stories include some nod to a pivotal contributor to the history of political thought.

The subsequent chapters will work through O’Connor’s corpus, arguing that part of the meaning of the stories involves a serious reevaluation of the state of political philosophy in the contemporary American life. Something, she believes, has been lost over the past few centuries and its absence cannot be ignored if we are to avoid the horrors of the gas chamber or the carnage of atomic warfare. We have lost our faith and, as she says in her introductory remarks to A Memoir of Mary Ann, in “the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness,” and when “tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”16 Getting our political thought right, in other words, means first and foremost recovering the source of tenderness.

Library, Correspondence, and Book Reviews

While O’Connor’s stories provide ample evidence that she had a working understanding of political philosophy, a perusal of her personal books, correspondence, and book reviews gives us a fairly clear idea of how she came upon her knowledge. For O’Connor, all academic subjects are related and eventually converge, which partially explains the eclectic range in her choice of reading materials. As such, she may never have set out to become a student of the history of political ideas, but in the course of her hunger to understand her faith and the reasons for its rejection by the modern world, she became acquainted with the classical, medieval, and modern schools of Western political thought.

Many of the books O’Connor owned at the time of her death are now held at the Ina Dillard Russell Library of her alma mater, now called Georgia College and State University. The collection contains 617 volumes.17 The topics of the material include philosophy, theology, literature, history, social sciences, and much else. As far as classical and medieval authors, she owned Plato’s Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Augustine’s Confessions, and Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, including the section that is often published separately as The Treatise on Law. She also owned Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, both volumes of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as well as his The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams, Pascal’s Penseés , Heidegger’s Existence and Being, and Josef Pieper’s Leisure as the Basis of Culture. Some of her books were about important political thinkers, such as Frederick Copleston’s Aquinas and his St. Thomas and Nietzsche. Other examples of such works are Romano Guardini’s The Death of Socrates, which offers an interpretation of four Platonic dialogues, and Jean Guitton’s The Modernity of Saint Augustine. She also owned books that provide general overviews of the history of ideas, including the history of political thought, such as the first three volumes of political theorist Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, the last of which focuses on political teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Jacques Maritain’s The Range of Reason, Martin C. D’Arcy’s Communism and Christianity, Guardini’s The Faith and Modern Man, Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion, Gustave Weigel’s The Modern God, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride, and John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua are further examples of books that give an account of modern politics’ departure from an older approach that was more friendly toward faith.18

An advantage of having access to O’Connor’s personal library is that we have a pretty good sense of what she read and found important. A frequent theme of her underlined passages deals with the challenge of modernity. Her Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, for instance, made special note of the following from Anton Pegis’s introduction:

“Man as a knower must be partly material in order to be adequately a knower. Of course, such a notion is bound to sound scandalous to modern ears. For we are the heirs of generations of philosophic speculations according to which man is a thinker and a mind. Now it is a fact that the Thomistic man is a knower rather than a thinker, and he is a composite being rather than a mind… If we are to judge matters as St. Thomas has done, we are bound to say that the European man became a thinker after he ruined himself as a knower; and we can now even trace the steps of that ruination—from Augustinian Platonism to the nominalistic isolationism of Ockham to the despairing and desperate Methodism of Descartes.”19

A similar argument is laid out in Charles Raven’s book on Teilhard de Chardin, though he goes further to comment on the political consequences of the modern emphasis on the individual mind. The passage marked by O’Connor reads, “Democracy, the eldest child of the French Revolution, has a boundless faith in the future, but it has mistaken equality for liberty and the crowd for community.”20 He goes on later in the book to commend the work being done by Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, two of O’Connor’s favorite writers, to “apply the principles of St. Thomas to the modern problems raised by science and sociology.”21 She also marked a passage from Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion that explains Hegel’s teaching on the state as the “supreme reality and self-sufficiency of being far surpassing that of the individual.”22 Likewise, she made note of Voegelin’s explanation that for Plato and Augustine the “paradigm of the good polis is revealed as an inquiry into man’s existence in a community that lies, not only beyond the polis, but beyond any political order in history,” a helpful articulation of what O’Connor means when she refers to her true country.23

Her correspondence provides further evidence of her general familiarity with political thought. Many of her letters to friends tell us both what books she read, many of which she did not physically possess at the end of her life, and what she thought about various authors. Her letters reveal that she frequently recommends Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism to aspiring writers, admires Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, finds Baron von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece “finer than anything I’ve read in a long time,” and tries to acquire a “classical veneer” by reading Cicero and Tacitus.24 We also learn she had access to Robert Fitzgerald’s library when she lived with him and his wife Sally in Connecticut, and that Robert was teaching Aristotle at the time, as well as translating Oedipus Rex, which O’Connor acknowledges influenced Hazel Mote’s self-blinding in Wise Blood. Fitzgerald also translated The Odyssey, which O’Connor likewise read.25

Given the many times O’Connor comments favorably upon him in her letters, the lack of scholarly attention to Baron von Hügel is surprising, although recent work by George Piggford and Michael Bruner have gone a long way to rectify this omission.26 Piggford argues that “O’Connor valued the Baron’s Thomistic reading of nature and grace, his exploration of history in relation to God’s involvement in creation, his attention to human freedom, and his emphasis on the costliness of the Christian life.”27 Bruner’s summary is very similar: “The inseparability of grace and nature and their connection to the whole paradox of mystery and manners; the need to dispense with the Instant Answer and to accept the “costingness” of Christian belief; the centrality of mystery as a critical reality in religious life, as well as the controlling device in fiction.”28 Both further agree that O’Connor was far more influenced by the Baron’s work on mysticism than his earlier, controversial modernist positions. When it came to faith and morals, O’Connor consistently accepted the Church’s teaching, but within that teaching she found a freedom to pursue truth in all things, including political thought.29 The similarity of Piggford’s and Bruner’s assessments, published nearly simultaneously, clearly makes von Hügel an important part of O’Connor’s intellectual formation.

In addition to Letters to a Niece, we know from O’Connor’s correspondence that she read von Hügel’s Essays and Address and his monumental two-volume treatment of St. Catherine of Genoa, The Mystical Element of Religion.30 The Essays and Addresses was a gift from Betty Hester, and O’Connor thanks her profusely, stating that she thought the essays in the collection were even better than the letters to his niece, adding that the “old man I think is the most congenial spirit I have found in English Catholic letters” and stating that the essays—which are primarily about religion, but they deal also with history, philosophy, and politics are worthy of being read many times.31 The first essay sets the stage for the book by discussing the problems of the modern reduction of religion to a psychological illusion, a recurring theme in much of what O’Connor read. Von Hügel’s The Mystical Element of Religion was also sent to O’Connor by a friend, Fannie Cheney, and O’Connor responded to it with enthusiasm, at least initially. “The Baron is in Milledgeville and I am highly obliged to you,” O’Connor writes, “You are contributing greatly to my education.”32   She read both volumes in the span of a month, though she is more sanguine in returning the second volume to the Cheney’s: “I wouldn’t say I had been too enlightened by reading it once, but I can always say I’ve done it … thank you for sharing this reading experience with me.”33 These words appear to apply only to the second volume, for shortly after reading the first volume she writes Hester that she is “more than ever impressed with the greatness of Baron von Hügel,” and she goes on to recount part of his argument about penitential practices and acts of charity.34 What is interesting about the first volume for our purposes is that it opens with the a section on “The Three Chief Forces of Western Civilization,” which follows the general pattern of the history of philosophic thought, including political philosophy. The first is the tradition of the Greeks, which he attributes to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the second is Christian revelation; and the third examines the modern emphasis on science to manipulate nature. Von Hügel argues that all three elements are important and necessary for civilization, implying that the modern emphasis on science to the exclusion of ancient philosophy and medieval faith will lead to great harm to Western culture.

The fact that von Hügel makes room for science alongside ancient philosophy and the Christian faith helps explain why O’Connor admired the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin’s most well-known work, The Phenomenon of Man, spoke of an evolving convergence of the same three elements von Hügel emphasizes: philosophy, religion, and science. “This is a scientific age,” O’Connor wrote to Ted Spivey defending The Phenomenon of Man, “and Teilhard’s direction is to face it toward Christ.”35 O’Connor did not claim to understand Chardin’s scientific argument, nor even his philosophy completely, but she believed that “even if there were errors in his thought, there were none in his heart.”36 She must have understood more than she let on; she was at least taken enough with him to borrow his language for one of her short stories, indeed the very one that her second collection would take for its title: “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” Among the reasons she appreciated Chardin is that he approached science the way she approached fiction, as a person of faith. Chardin also demonstrated much to O’Connor’s satisfaction that one can be open to the discovery of yet uncovered truths without rejecting the wisdom of the past.37

Another of O’Connor’s favorite authors to recommend to her friends is the Italian-German priest Romano Guardini, whose continuing influence in theology is difficult to overstate. O’Connor read his theological masterpiece The Lord (which she called “very fine”) and some of his shorter works on religion and prayer.38 She also read his more politically-minded books. As stated above, she owned his book on the death of Socrates. She also read and recommended to Betty Hester his monograph reflecting on the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which the atheistic modern Ivan Karamazov tells a parable of the Church no longer in need of Christ, echoes of which are heard in Hazel Motes’s proclamation of a new Church without Christ.39 She also recommends Guardini’s The Faith and Modern Man to Hester and expresses eagerness to read his The End of the Modern World.40 The former is a collection of essays written in the midst of the Second World War in Germany reaffirming Christian commitments and beliefs. The latter book is an account of the history of political thought, in which Guardini explains that the “older society had been supported in its basic norms by the art of politics … Political goals were subordinated by the felt need to conform to the Divine Will,” but “the modern world has increasingly seen political activities as autonomous.” He continues:

“Politics has become a law unto itself. Injustice at the service of the political was committed not only without bad conscience, but even from a certain sense of “duty.” Machiavelli was the first to express this independent “morality” in the political realm; others were to follow him. Thomas Hobbes … built his theory of the state upon the assertion that it should be absolute master and judge of human life.”41

This project, initiated by Machiavelli and Hobbes, Guardini goes on to argue, is untenable and effectively at an end. This he declared from his homeland of Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, which he fears is only the beginning of a new non-Christian era in which those of faith should not expect support or encouragement from their political regimes. Guardini’s works assume an audience, even among his Christian readers, that has absorbed the spirit of modernity; O’Connor likewise believes she “has to succeed [as a writer] in making the divinity of Christ seem consistent with the structure of all reality … in spite of a world that doesn’t feel it.”42

At Betty Hester’s suggestion, O’Connor read the works of Simone Weil, who was precisely the sort of person for whom O’Connor wrote, someone who struggled to understand how Christ’s divinity is consistent with the structure of reality. O’Connor commented to Hester that Weil intrigued her, but she had greater appreciation for Edith Stein, who ultimately converted to Catholicism and died in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Weil never could reconcile herself to organized religion, and O’Connor found in her a life that was both comic and terrible: “what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth.”43 She compares Weil to Hulga from “Good Country People,” another intellectually proud woman who cannot, despite herself, run away from God. Stein, Weil, and Hulga are all trying, with various degrees of success, to make sense of the modern regimes of the West; they feel the tug of antiquity beneath the glamour of the twentieth century. Stein, who took the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross upon entering the Carmelite Order, followed the tug, Weil confronted it, and Hulga tries her best to ignore it until her terrible though comic encounter with Manly Pointer.44

Much more could be said about O’Connor’s collection of books and her correspondence with friends about the things she was reading to show that she was at least generally familiar with the ideas from the history of political philosophy and was actively thinking about the quandary of the modern world in the twentieth century. Her search was not for better political candidates or new social policies, but for an approach to understanding the realities of humans living in community with one another and yet disagreeing on the fundamental questions of life, particularly those of faith. O’Connor cared deeply about such matters and was thankful to find insightful writers like von Hügel and Guardini, and fellow travelers like Betty Hester and Ted Spivey, to help her develop a clearer vision of the political circumstances of the modern world.45

In addition to O’Connor’s library and personal letters, we also get an impression of O’Connor’s understanding of the history of political thought from her 120 book reviews, which covered 143 titles, mostly for The Georgia Bulletin and The Southern Cross, both Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. She likely chose to write these short reviews as a way of introducing Catholics in her region to important works and to offer concrete lessons on how to read. She frequently worried that a misunderstanding of piety was leading American Catholics to only read the lives of saints and novels about reverent and orthodox characters.46 Her review of J. F. Powers’s The Presence of Grace, for example, makes clear that the stories in the collection are worth reading because they are good examples of art, and not just because they involve Catholic characters.47 Similarly, she praises Caroline Gordon’s The Malefactors as a “profoundly Catholic” novel that succeeds as a work of art even though some religious readers may find it shocking. “Making grace believable to the contemporary reader,” O’Connor explains, “is the almost insurmountable problem of the novelist who writes from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy,” and it is this that she claims Gordon accomplishes.48 This high commendation of Powers’s and Gordon’s books also cautions Catholic readers to recognize the modern impulse against faith, as well as the American Catholic impulse against art accurately depicting the modern world.

O’Connor also reviewed the books she admired and wanted to bring to the attention of the diocesan newspaper’s readers. She recommends von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece and approves of his warning to avoid the “mentality that reads only religious literature … and allows the fascinations of Grace to deaden the expressions of nature.” She ends the review pointing out that this advice helped lead to his nieces’ conversion, evidence that the proper response to the problems of modernity is not to be more “churchy” but to return to the contemplative mentality of ancient thought and medieval Christianity.49 She also highly recommends von Hügel’s two volumes of Essays and Address, hardly light reading, but that was part of O’Connor’s point.50 Catholics, especially American Catholics, have to overcome the superficialities of modern religion if they are to survive the times. This same consideration led her to praise the Protestant theologian Denis de Rougemont’s The Christian Opportunity, which shows that the “Nietzschean formula, God is dead (the gospel in reverse),” has crept even into churches, which are becoming “morality clubs rather than assemblies of pardoned sinners.”51 This is one of several examples of O’Connor recommending to her Catholic audience the books of intellectually astute Protestant thinkers.

Many of the other books O’Connor reviewed deal with questions of modernity. Jean Guitton’s The Modernity of Saint Augustine “traces aspects of Augustinian thought in Freud, Sartre, Proust, Gide, and Hegel, indicating the further step into profundity that the saint took which these modern thinkers stop short of.”52 She reviews several of Guardini’s books, including Freedom, Grace, and Destiny, which outlines differences between medieval and modern political thought. Maritain’s The Range of Reason argues that the modern separation of reason from revelation has led to doubts about reason itself. In an unpublished review, O’Connor calls Étienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience “a book indispensable to an understanding of the modern age.”53 On another occasion, she advocates for a greater familiarity with Antonio Rosmini whose “political philosophy was substantially that of Leo XIII but preceded it by half a century,” and was an attempt at reviving St. Thomas in light of modern conditions.54 She agreed that modernity was not thoroughly rotten, but had many real or potential possibilities for good so long as they were not detached from transcendent or divine reality, a view that leads to an endorsement of Barry Ulanov’s Seeds of Hope in the Modern World.55

High praise is also given to Russell Kirk’s Beyond the Dreams of Avarice. Given its relevance to understanding O’Connor’s appreciation of political thought, the first paragraph of O’Connor’s review is worth quoting in full:

“Monsignor Guardini has written that “When a man accepts divine truth in the obedience of faith, he is forced to rethink human truth,” and it is such a rethinking in the obedience to divine truth which must be the mainspring of any enlightened social thought, whether it tends to be liberal or conservative. Since the Enlightenment, liberalism in its extreme forms has not accepted divine truth and the conservatism which has enjoyed any popularity has shown no tendency to rethink human truth or to reexamine human society. Mr. Kirk has managed in a succession of books which have proved both scholarly and popular to do both and to make the voice of an intelligent and vigorous conservative thought respected in this country.”56

O’Connor is not summarizing Kirk in this paragraph, but speaking on her own behalf. What is noteworthy here is not that she is embracing the “intelligent and vigorous conservative thought” of Kirk, which she only does tentatively as a better alternative to the more extreme forms of liberalism and reactionary conservatism, but that she returns—here with the aid of Guardini—to the medieval idea that political life has to be approached in light of divine truth. Tactfully, she leaves room for both liberal and conservative thought to be “enlightened” through an obedient faith and welcomes Kirk’s efforts to do so for conservatism. The problem with political theory since the Enlightenment (notice how this is juxtaposed to her own use of the enlightenment on behalf of divine truth) is that it has acted as though political life can be carried out without regard for the mystery of divine truth.

O’Connor ends her review of Beyond the Dreams of Avarice with the recommendation that readers new to Kirk begin with either his The Conservative Mind, A Program for Conservatives, or Academic Freedom. As mentioned earlier, O’Connor admired the first of these books, and was happy to recommend it to friends.57 Like so many of the other books O’Connor read, The Conservative Mind gave her a basic overview of modern political thought, although in this case Kirk’s concern is with the conservative response to the rise of liberalism. Edmond Burke, John Adams, and Alexis de Tocqueville are among the book’s heroes; Kirk sees them as providing an intellectual and practical response to the individualism of Locke, the romanticism of Rousseau, the utilitarianism of Bentham, the economic materialism of Marx, and the radical will-to-power of Nietzsche. No doubt part of O’Connor’s attraction to Kirk in general was his affinity for poetry and literature as an appropriate response to the nihilism of modernity.

Kirk’s was not the only book dealing with American politics that O’Connor reviewed. She encouraged, for instance, readers of The Bulletin to order a free pamphlet from the Fund for the Republic that contained five articles on religious and civil liberties in the United States.58 She particularly favored William Clancy’s essay, quoting at length a passage that calls upon churches to recognize the pluralistic nature of contemporary American life and to act with prudence in their claims of authority. O’Connor says she would like to see this advice taken to heart by the Church “to curb some of the just suspicion created in the minds of non-Catholics by certain Catholic excesses in social action.”59 Arline Boucher and John Tehan’s book on James Cardinal Gibbons is likewise recommended, in part because Cardinal Gibbons foresaw Catholicism flourishing in America’s constitutional order.60 Similarly, O’Connor likes Norman Foerster’s Image of America and Gustave Weigel’s The Modern God for adding “greatly to the Catholic’s understanding of his country and his times.”61 And William Lynch’s The Integrating Mind is said to be “an antidote to prevailing exaggerations in American political thought and social thought” that create false “either/or” choices.62 O’Connor agreed with Lynch and other authors that American Catholics have to resist the modern notion that political life has to be divorced from moral sensibilities, just as she resisted the similar temptation in modern fiction to separate drama from a moral sense. Gustave Weigel’s Faith and Understanding in America gave O’Connor some hope that Catholics would maintain their moral sensibilities in public life and that the “day may come when Catholics will be the ones who maintain the spiritual traditions of the South.”63 This is only possible, O’Connor thought, if American Catholics rediscover and expand upon the intellectual tradition that they have inherited and make sense of under the conditions of their country.

The books O’Connor reviews that are most obviously about the history of political philosophy are the first three volumes of Eric Voegelin’s Order and History. O’Connor wrote separate reviews of each of the volumes. In the first, entitled Israel and Revelation, she remarks that Voegelin’s work is being compared to philosophy-of-history efforts of Vico, Hegel, Spengler, and Toynbee, but she thinks Voegelin’s Order and History is superior to at least those of Spengler and Toynbee in that it “does not see history as civilizational cycles” but as the movement away from civilization toward “existence under God,” nor does it—like Toynbee—treat “all spiritual movements as fundamentally the same and of equal importance.” Israel’s movement toward God makes history more than just a Nietzschean eternal recurrence of forms.64 The review ends with a brief comment on the fact that Voegelin has returned to the University of Munich, having previously been expelled under Nazi rule, as if to remind readers that the stakes between linear and cyclical understandings of time have real consequences for political regimes and citizens.65

The second two volumes of Order and History deal with the ancient Greeks. O’Connor’s review of volume two, The World of the Polis, provides a nice summary of the difference between Israel’s and Greece’s encounter with history. She admits that much of the book will only be of interest to “students of the history of political science,” but she recommends the sections on Homer and Aeschylus as being of “interest to anyone taking pleasure in literature.”66 Her review of Plato and Aristotle, Voegelin’s third volume, surprisingly has nothing to say about Aristotle. She claims that the “more interesting” part of the book “is devoted to an analysis of Plato’s science of order, from the Republic through the Laws.67 Summarizing Voegelin she explains that Plato’s movement toward the transcendent is real, though only a prefiguration of the Christian “leap in being” to come later in history. O’Connor takes note of the fact that the Republic’s search for justice requires looking both at the individual soul as well as the order and disorder of society, a basic insight about Plato that has parallels in her own fiction.

The review of Voegelin’s third volume of Order and History ends with a telling paragraph that clarifies O’Connor’s own broad understanding of the history of political thought. She says, “Plato’s enemies were the Sophists and Socrates’ arguments against them are still today the classical arguments against that sophistic philosophy of existence which characterizes positivism and the age of enlightenment.”68 Her review of Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle gives her the occasion to offer this thought, and it should be emphasized that this is her gloss on history more so than Voegelin’s, though he likely would sympathize with it. O’Connor believes that Socrates’s arguments against the sophists of his day remain the “classical arguments” for taking on the sophists of our own day, which she identifies with positivism and the Enlightenment. She ends with a more explicit statement about Voegelin that carries forward the relevance that she has just staked out for Socrates, explaining that Voegelin “makes it plain in this volume that the murder of Socrates parallels the political murders of our time.” What is she thinking of here in 1958, prior to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King? While it is unclear who she might have in mind, she is clearly thinking of those who, like Socrates, defend transcendent truth in the face of political sophistry, generally speaking the sophistry of modernity.

Further examples from O’Connor’s library, correspondence, and book reviews could be multiplied to show that she possessed more than a casual awareness of the history of political philosophy. In some cases she read the seminal thinkers of political thought firsthand and wrestled with their works, but much of her knowledge came from reading her favorite authors on the history of ideas—Guardini, von Hügel, Gilson, Voegelin, Kirk, and others. We should therefore not be surprised to discover that her knowledge of political thought contributed to the vision by which she saw the world and depicted it in her stories. As she made clear time and again in her letters and essays, art is the product of the practical intellect. Her fiction is not an expression of her feelings, but of her mind. The books she read contributed greatly to the development of her talent as an artist, and so much of what she read dealt either directly or indirectly with the ideas of political thought over time.

Along with theology, then, political philosophy informs her work as a whole. In some cases, (for example “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) the ideas of ancient thinkers help shape the story; in others (“A View of the Woods,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” “Good Country People,” and many others) modern ideas are being challenged rather directly. And because all of her fiction is written with the eyes of faith, medieval thinking is nearly always detectable, and in at least a few stories its presence is fairly close to the surface (such as The Violent Bear It Away and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”). Her way of speaking about our human manners pointing to divine mystery is well-known, but it is not widely acknowledged that O’Connor’s understanding of manners is informed by a careful reading of the history of political philosophy, and the bearing that history has on the American way of life. The following pages offer reflections upon this aspect of O’Connor’s work.



1. Flannery O’Connor, “Author’s Note to the Second Edition,” Wise Blood, second edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962).

2. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Sally Fitzgerald, ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 147.

3. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, eds. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 162.

4. Flannery O’Connor, O’Connor: Collected Works, Sally Fitzgerald, ed. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988), xiv. For a thorough account of O’Connor and Giroux’s relationship see Patrick Samway, S.J., Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux: A Publishing Partnership (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018).

5. O’Connor, Habit of Being, 349.

6. Ibid., 97.

7. O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 159.

8. The three-part break down of the history of political thought is common in the work of Leo Strauss. Most explicitly, see his “Three Waves of Modernity,” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 81-98. See also, Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950). O’Connor was clearly more influenced by Eric Voegelin than Strauss, but a similar, general understanding of modern political philosophy can be found in his works, such as The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).

9. Henry T. Edmondson, Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O’Connor’s Response to Nihilism (Lanham: Lexington, 2002).

10. Henry T. Edmondson, ed., A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2017).

11. John Roos, “Flannery O’Connor and Political Community in ‘The Displaced Person’” in Edmondson, A Political Companion, 278-302. See also John Roos, “The Political in Flannery O’Connor: A Reading of ‘A View of the Woods,’” Studies in Short Fiction 29.2 (Spring 1992): 161-179.

12. Avis Hewitt and Robert Donahoo, eds., Flannery O’Connor in the Age of Terrorism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010); Jon Lance Bacon, Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

13. Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

14. John F. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).

15. See the concluding paragraph of Niccoló Machiavelli, The Prince, XXV.

16. O’Connor, Collected Works, 830.

17. All the books mentioned in this paragraph can be found in the two published catalogues of O’Connor’s books held at the Ina Dillard Russell Library. See Arthur F. Kinney, Flannery O’Connor’s Library: Resources of Being (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), Lorine M. Getz, Flannery O’Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1980). For another account of O’Connor’s books see Kathleen Feeley, The Voice of the Peacock, second edition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

18. Added to this list is John Herman Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind: A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926), which Henry T. Edmondson’s Return to Good and Evil relies upon as the text that O’Connor would have read as an undergraduate taking the course “Introduction to Modern Philosophy” at Georgia State College for Women.

19. Kinney, Resources of Being, 71-72. The quotation comes from Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Anto 20 Kinney, Resources of Being, 63. The quotations are from Charles E. Raven, Teilhard de Chardin: Scientist and Seer (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 87.

20. Kinney, Resources of Being, 63. The quotations are from Charles E. Raven, Teilhard de Chardin: Scientist and Seer (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 87.

21. Ibid., 155.

22. Kinney, Resources of Being, 34. The quotation is from Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1961), 32.

23. Kinney, Resources of Being, 143. The quotation is from Eric Voegelin, Order and History, vol. 3 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 92.

24. On her recommendation of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism see Habit of Being, 46-47,144, 214, 216, 221. On Kirk’s Conservative Mind see Habit of Being, 110. The quote on von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece is in Habit of Being, 156. And for her attempt to at a classical veneer see Habit of Being, 150.

25. O’Connor, Habit of Being, 16. Fitzgerald’s translations are Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), and Homer, The Odyssey (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). O’Connor enjoyed evening conversations with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald when she was living with them, much of which was intellectual and spiritual. See Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), 180-181.

26. George Piggford, C.S.C., “O’Connor, von Hügel, and ‘This Modernist Business’” in The Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor, 100-125. Michael Bruner, “The Baron is in Milledgeville,” in Revelation and Convergence: Flannery O’Connor and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition (Washington: Catholic University of America, 2017), 118-145. The first chapter of Bruner’s book is also devoted to von Hügel. See Michael Mears Bruner, “The Baron: O’Connor’s Theological Turn,” A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimaging of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2017), 21-66. One of the few other essays to treat O’Connor and von Hügel is William M. Kirkland: “Baron von Hügel and Flannery O’Connor,” Flannery O’Connor Bulletin 18 (1989): 28-42.

27. Piggford, “This Modernist Business,” 102.

28. Bruner, “The Baron is in Milledgeville,” 139.

29. O’Connor even defends disagreeing with the Church’s own political positions in a 1959 letter to Ted Spivey. See Habit of Being, 347.

30. O’Connor’s editions: Friedrich von Hügel, Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, two volumes (London: J. M. Dent, 1949 and 1951), and The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (London: J. M. Dent, 1908, 1923).

31. O’Connor, Habit of Being, 165.

32. Stephens, The Correspondence with the Cheneys, 86. O’Connor adds: “I see nobody has checked these books out since 1954. The Tennessee theologians must all be Baptists.” Apparently inattention to von Hügel is nothing new.

33. Ibid., 88.

34. O’Connor, Habit of Being, 335.

35. Ibid., 388.

36. Ibid., 430.

37. O’Connor’s edition: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, Bernard Wall, trans. (New York, Harper and Row, 1959).

38. O’Connor, Habit of Being, 74.

39. Ibid., 126. O’Connor recommends this same book to Ted Spivey; see 296.

40. Ibid., 133-134 and 169.

41. O’Connor owned at the time of her death eleven books by Romano Guardini, including The Faith and Modern Man, Charolotte E. Forsyth, trans. (New York: Pantheon, 1952). She did not have his The End of Modern World, but she says in a letter to Betty Hester that she had asked to review it for the Bulletin (Habit of Being, 169). It is unclear whether the editor ever sent her the book; she did not publish a review of it and claims in September of 1958 not to have read it yet (Habit of Being, 296). Even if O’Connor did not read the quoted passage cited here, she was nonetheless familiar with Guardini’s general understanding of the history of political philosophy. Originally published by Sheed and Ward (New York, 1956), the quotation here is taken from the revised edition (Wilmington: ISI, 1998), 30.

42. O’Connor, Habit of Being, 290.

43. Ibid., 105-106.

44. For a helpful account of O’Connor’s reading of Weil and Stein see Sarah Gordon, “Flannery O’Connor, the Left-Wing Mystic, and the German Jew: A Reconsideration,” in The Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor, 126-144.

45. O’Connor ends an October 1958 letter to Spivey in which she comments at length about the problems religion faces in the modern world, and expresses thanks (in her own way) at finding someone else interested in discussing such matters. Habit of Being, 299-300.

46. See for example her “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” in Mystery and Manners, 169-190.

47. Flannery O’Connor, The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews by Flannery O’Connor, Carter W. Martin, ed. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1983), 14-15.

48. Ibid., 15-16.

49. Ibid., 21-22.

50. Ibid., 41-42.

51. Ibid., 168-169.

52. Ibid., 90-91.

53. Ibid., 129.

54. Ibid., 178-179.

55. Ibid., 157-159.

56. Ibid., 23.

57. O’Connor read and admired Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1953). See Habit of Being, 110 and 161. Kirk also admired O’Connor. See Henry T. Edmondson, “‘He Thinks He’s Jesus Christ!’: Flannery O’Connor, Russell Kirk, and the Problem of Misguided Humanitarianism” in The Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor, 251-277.

58. Religion and the Free Society (Fund for the Republic, 1959), in O’Connor, Presence of Grace, 68-69.

59. O’Connor, Presence of Grace, 69.

60. Ibid., 175-176.

61. Ibid., 162-163.

62. Ibid., 146-147.

63. Ibid., 77.

64. Ibid., 60-61.

65. For a good account of the similarities between O’Connor’s and Voegelin’s views of history, see John Desmond, “Risen Sons: History, Consciousness, and Personality,” in Risen Sons, 93-116.

66. O’Connor, Presence of Grace, 67-68.

67. Ibid., 70.J

68. Ibid., 71.


This is from Flannery O’Connor and the Perils of Governing by Tenderness. Our review of the book is here.

Jerome FossJerome Foss

Jerome Foss

Jerome C. Foss is Associate Professor of Politics in the Alex G. McKenna School for Business, Economics, and Government at Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania. He is author of Constitutional Democracy and Judicial Supremacy: John Rawls and the Transformation of American Politics (Cambria, 2016) and Flannery O’Connor and the Perils of Governing by Tenderness (Lexington, 2019).

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