instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, January 26, 2004

An Open Letter to J.—B.—, A Young Gentleman with Desires

I am reminded that I wanted to post Fr. Vincent McNabb's, O.P., list of "Fifteen Things a Distributist May Do."

I am not a distributist myself, although I am sympathetic to its ideals. A major knock against distributism, though, is that it is all ideals with no pragmatics, so it's instructive to see what one of the major thinkers behind distributism recommended a distributist do:
  1. If you have a mantelpiece, remove everything from it except perhaps the clock. If you are fortunate enough to have no mantelpiece, remove from the walls of your home all pictures and such like, except a crucific. This will teach you the Poverty of Thrift. It may be called an empiric approach to Economics.
  2. Clean out your own room daily. Clean it if possible on your knees. This will teach you the Poverty of Work....
  3. For forty days or more—say, during Lent—do not smoke (and neither grouse about it nor boast about it)....
  4. Buy some hand-woven cloth. Wear it. Buy some more. Wear that too... Your home-spun will instruct you better than the Declaration of Independence will instruct you on the dignity and rights of man.
  5. Buy boots you can walk in. Walk in them... you will discover the human foot. On discovering it, your joy will be as great as if you had invented it.
  6. Find another young Distributist... with brains and feet. Invite him to use his feet by tramping with you across any English county... Invite him to use his brains by standing on his feet, but not on his dignity, in market-places, telling the village-folk what is the matter with Staffordshire. This will lead him to tell them what is the matter with himself....
  7. [S]pend your summer holiday as a farm-hand. You will not be worth your keep; but it will be worth your while. If Babylondon has not befogged your intellectus agens—your active intellect, in the noble phrase of Scholasticism, you will gradually see the Poverty of Work. This is the other empiric approach to Economics.
  8. If through the machinations of Beelzebub or his fellow-devil Mammon, your house is in suburbia, plant your garden not with things lovely to see like roses, or sweet to smell like lavender; but good to eat like potatoes or French beans...
  9. ... For twelve months, if possible, or at least for twelve days, do not use anything ‘canned’, neither canned meat nor canned music....
  10. I will now appeal to the artist that is within every one of us. Art, as you know, is the right way of making a good thing... make something—a cup of tea, a boiled egg, a hatpeg (from a fallen branch), a chair!...
  11. Talk your young architect friend into spending two weeks of his holiday making an abode (formerly called a house).... Give him a wood axe, a hatchet, and adze, and a few tools. Tell him from me that if in two weeks and for less that 100 pounds you and he cannot make an abode more spacious and sanitary than ninety per cent of the dwellings in the Borough of Westminster or St. Pancras, you should be certified.
  12. Set down for the information and inspiration of young Distributists one hundred answers to the usually despairing question: "How can I get out of London?" Begin with the simplest answer: "Walk out."...
  13. ... If you make up your mind to marry, do not marry merely a good wife: marry a good mother to your children. A wife that is a good mother to your children is the Angel of the House; the other sort is the very devil.
  14. Before asking her hand and her heart, tell her how to test you. Advise her to ask herself not whether you would make her a good husband, but whether you would make a good father to her and your children....
  15. If you do not feel called to the state of marriage vows, there is another state of vows—where mysticism and asceticism prove themselves the redemption of Economics.
Read the whole thing if you want a better idea of McNabb's ideas.

So what are McNabb's ideas? The Poverty of Thrift, the Poverty of Work, an active and healthy body. (Following in the footsteps of St. Albert, now called "the Great" but called "Boots" by his flock in Regensburg, Fr. McNabb walked everywhere, to the point where an atheist once begged him to accept cab fare home, for decency's sake.) Make what you can yourself -- and, by the way, you can make a lot more yourself than other people want you to think. The importance of the family, the importance of the religious life.

Put this way, distributism sounds like a perfectly sound rule of life for a Christian interested in what is sometimes called an "authentic life." But it still doesn't sound like a prescriptive economic system....

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