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Re-enthroning common sense

24 January 2014

This author sees it as on true religion's side, Edward Dowler finds


The Common Mind: Politics, society and Christian humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk
André Gushurst-Moore
Angelico Press £10.95

IN THIS engaging study, which combines history, philosophy, theology, and literary criticism, the splendidly named André Gushurst-Moore, a senior member of staff at Downside School, examines in successive chapters the work of Thomas More, Swift, Samuel Johnson, Burke, Coleridge, Newman, Orestes Brownson, Disraeli, Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Russell Kirk. Gushurst-Moore's refreshingly anti-post-modern thesis is that underlying these authors' diverse concerns sounds a steady, insistent drumbeat, which is the common-sense view of "what is generally believed, admitted and held to be true".

Such common sense is reflected in, among other things, an understanding of language which seesit as the means to elucidate rather than obscure the truth; a view of law that understands that it must reflect a deeper, underlying natural order rather than arbitrary diktats; and a view of the human person which honours his or her God-given dignity and potential for virtue.

An explicitly Catholic writer, Gushurst-Moore rescues human-ism from its modern association with the Polly Toynbee tendency: "once religion goes, all things are doubted, including man." Religion and not science, he argues, controversially, is the true guarantor of humanistic values and of common sense.

The father of such thinking is St Thomas Aquinas, and the tradition of natural law and virtue of which he is the classic exponent. "Thomism", the author writes, "is the philosophy of sanity since it is integrative, universal, sensible, and reiterative of the common understanding of experience rooted in the senses and refined by reason." When the drumbeat of the mainstream, common-sense Thomistic tradition is lost, as it often is, disintegration and disaster soon follow. When philosophy loses touch with common sense, thinkers come to insane conclusions, such as that morality, justice, and, indeed, all objective reality are just insubstantial projections of the thinking human mind. And when political authority unyokes itself from common sense, terrors ensue, such as the reign of Henry VIII, the French Revolution, modern totalitarianism, and experiments in eugenics.

Gushurst-Moore has mixed feelings about Anglicanism: on the one hand, many of the writers he admires were convinced and devout members of the Church of England. On the other, Anglicanism's tendency to conform to "the secular spirit" makes it an uncertain bulwark against the disintegration that comes with the loss of common sense.

Anglicans will also have mixed feelings about Gushurst-Moore. Although the natural-law tradition has an honoured place in classic Anglicanism, it often elicits not very well-informed disapproval from Evangelicals - because of Barthian scruples about the primacy of revelation; and from liberals - because they associate it with a particular view of the nature and purpose of human sexuality.

Gushurst-Moore's book reminds us that it is slightly embarrassing to write it off on either of these grounds, and that we should look again at the enormous resources that this tradition of thought can bring to our current cultural, moral, and intellectual crisis.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is the Vicar of Clay Hill, Enfield, in the diocese of London.

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