Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Distributist's Bookshelf: Peter Maurin's Easy Essays

Easy Essays by Peter Maurin. ♦♦♦ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
(Washington, DC: Rose Hill Books, 2003).

“Peter’s teaching was simple, so simple, as one can see from these phrased paragraphs... that many disregarded them.”
- Dorothy Day

“[T]o create a new society within the shell of the old” – this was Peter Maurin’s aim. This was the goal he articulated for the Catholic Worker when, with Dorothy Day in 1933, he co-founded that movement and its publication.

Houses of Hospitality and Cooperative Farm Communes where the rule of life was the daily practice of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy: this was his vision. It was a vision that changed many people’s lives, Dorothy Day being one of them. And, with her help, it was a vision that seemed at times as though it really might change the world. And it may yet.

But neither Peter’s goal of reconstructing the social order nor his vision of the shape of that new order within the shell of the old – neither of these was his real passion, the substance of his vocation. Peter’s love was doctrine. He was a born teacher. He loved conversation, although it doesn’t seem that you could say he loved debate per se. He didn’t pretend such sophistication. His goal in discussion was conversion. He wanted his interlocutor to see things his way. The thrill of the melding of two minds and the shining of the light of what he was convinced to be true on a darkened intellect – that was his muse.

He articulated in several places an antipathy for “technicians.” The average worker, skilled or unskilled, was a technician, a functionary. And scholars, too, were cogs in a wheel of academia. In the Houses of Hospitality, Peter wanted to foster an atmosphere where “Catholic scholars are dynamic and not academic and Catholic workers are scholars and not politicians.” He wanted a place where the ideas he embraced and propounded would find right soil, sink in, take root, grow and blossom. And the means of sowing this crop were his Easy Essays.

The essays are not quite prose. Nor could they properly be called poetry. They’re thought-capsules in a rudimentary form. They are a delivery system. There’s some pith and some ornamentation, but it never distracts. The goal in Maurin’s writing is clear: indoctrination. The point is hammered home, concisely and without conceit. There’s nothing to distract from the main goal. There’s none of the atmosphere of Dorothy’s writing, in which you can smell the dank apartment or the wet soil. Peter’s words are like pills to be swallowed in a gulp rather than savored. But they have in common with pills something other than the bland delivery mechanism: they give good medicine to the mind and soul.

It might seem a strange first choice for the Distributist Bookshelf to pick Peter Maurin’s aphoristic “essays.” But there is a wealth of good information contained in these brief locutions. In the background can be easily discerned the influence of Chesterton and Belloc, Gill and Pepler, Maritain and Mounier. But unfamiliarity with this background is no impedance to appreciating Maurin’s writings. His thoughts are crystal clear. No need to refer to footnotes or an encyclopedia.

Not all of Maurin’s advice will be practical for modern Distributists. People may take some exception to his “true communist” sympathies or his agrarian ideals. But Maurin is a great way to get in touch with the soul of Distributist philosophy. Aquinas and the Papal Social Teachings run like bright threads throughout the tapestry of his writing. These, like other themes, are generously repeated (or better, recapitulated), so that a few reads of his essays gives one a very good familiarity with the “spirit” of Distributistism. He holds personalism in tension with communitarianism, revolution in tension with tradition, idealism in tension with realism.

My favorite of Maurin's essay, and a good sample of his writing, is the one entitled “When Christ is King.”

In the essay, Maurin identifies himself as a "radical" and then distinguishes this from both "liberals" and "conservatives":
If I am a radical
then I am not a liberal.
Liberals are so liberal about everything
that they refuse to be fanatical
about anything.
And not being able to be fanatical
about anything,
liberals cannot be liberators.
They can only be liberals.


If I am a radical,
then I am not a conservative.
Conservatives try to believe
that things are good enough
to be left alone.
But things are not good enough
to be left alone.
And conservatives do not know
how to take the upside down
and to put it right side up.
When conservatives and radicals
will come to an understanding
they will take the upside down
and they will put it right side up.
Maurin wants radical change, and notes the difference that this implies with other ideologies. Conservatives want no change. Liberals' New Deal is merely a "patching up." Socialists and Communists want a change that can't really be.

Maurin wants to "change from an acquisitive society / to a functional society, / from a society of go-getters / to a society of go-givers."

A society of go-givers. Where have we heard that before? Sounds like certain amounts of gratuitousness would be involved in such a society, at least it sounds that way to me.

The Easy Essays of Peter Maurin are too-little appreciated today. As we try to find a way to make the wisdom of the great lights of Personalist and Distributist thought accessible to all of society, the summations of Peter Maurin can be a great aid. Many workers were made scholars sitting at that man's feet. And much more important, they were probably made saints almost as often.

The way to reconstructing the social order isn't through welfare programs or stimulus packages, nor through liberated market mechanisms paying heed to no extrinsic value or meaning. The social order will change when men are changed: when they are made saints who love the good, and scholars who love the true.

Pick up a copy of Maurin's Easy Essays and put it on your Distributist shelf today. His ideas just might change you. And through you, they may - even in a little way - change the world.


  1. I don't see anywhere in your post anything about what Peter actually meant by the word, "radical"....

  2. You're right, I didn't really make it explicitly, although I think it's implied. When he speaks about creating "a new society within the shell of the old one," he's getting at his notion of "radicalism."

    Somewhere in one of the essays (I don't have the copy at hand to name it) he speaks about being a radical and getting thrown out of a Knights of Columbus meeting for that reason. Anyway, in that essay, he later makes a play on words which some people might miss. He says that radicals go to the roots of things.

    Radix is the Latin word for "root" or "stem" and is the source of our word radical. To be radical is often seen as uprooting. But another meaning - Peter's meaning, I think - is changing things at the roots, getting to the essence and making a fundamental shift.

    He wanted to change the very spirit and philosophy of society so that "programmes" and structures weren't the most important part to him. (How many times have we heard that if we shape virtuous society members, a virtuous ordering of society will follow, or if we shape a culture of life, then an ethic of life will follow?) I don't think this means that he would deny the need for reform on an organizational level, since society shapes the individual. But I do think, on the other hand, that it explains how the anarchism of the Worker movement was reconciled to the philosophy of the Church. It was a kind of a priori subsidiarity. But anyway, I'm getting on a tangent.

    I don't know whether I came any closer to really explaining what he meant by radical, but maybe that's cuz it's a big - and obvious - idea. It's hard to express any more precisely. He wanted to totally change society from the inside out, to plant good seed and let it grow - from the roots.

  3. He actually was talking about roots according to the classic definition--but he didn't want to "change" them, he wanted to restore them. It was for precisely this reason that he was so disappointed with Dorothy when the Catholic Worker had its first run; he felt that she had completely misunderstodd his intent (and he was right) and that the Movement was going in a direction outward, not back to the source (the Catholic Faith at its core).

  4. Well, yes, although I didn't think that Dorothy's ad extra agenda was in conflict with Peter's core values nor with the tenets of Catholic doctrine. Yes, the Movement strayed much, and Peter never cared much for the more "practical" aspects. He was, in my reading of his life, a true idealist. Part of that idealism, I think, led to a sort of optimism in his evaluation of the culture. I know that sounds far off the mark if you've ever read his writings - he seems anything but optimistic. What I mean, though, is that merely "restoring to the roots" is a bit too simplistic.

    I think we're in agreement, Miki; I'm finding hard to express what I mean. But I guess you could say that while the Church, ad intra, needs to restore Herself to her own roots by a constant process of conversion (and this was a movement Maurin was acutely aware of), we also need to re-engage culture and society and restore the larger whole of the world to the same sanctifying source. But this latter process isn't as simple as a return or a restoration. John Paul II captured it well with the phrase "re-evangelization." We often - and I think Peter did this, too - allow the historical facts of Europe and the development of the West as a Christian culture to fool us into not seeing how seditious the enemy has been in our day. The roots really have changed. Perhaps the call to a "change" of roots wasn't explicitly made by Peter, but that's only to the extent that he assumed the roots to be present and living. He would certainly not say the same of a non-Christian world (say, the Muslim world). And I think much of what holds for non-Christian society also holds now for post-Christian society. The culture has become one of death, it WAS uprooted and transplanted into a field of perdition, and the restoration in this case becomes more complicated.

    We need in a certain sense to re-graft Western culture onto the stem of Christian tradition. We can't take for granted that the connection is already there, just because it ostensibly holds in some places. This identification would be too easy. It happens, for example, when Catholics in America fall too easily into political ideologies and identify with one or another "party" because we're habitually accustomed to think that SOMEONE in society must represent and speak for our values. That may have been the case in the past, but it is no more. The reality of the relation of the Church to the world and in the world is more complex in the post-modern, post-Christian age. This is where much of the wisdom of the ecclesiology and sacrementology of Vatican II is very valuable for us.

    Anyway, in summary, what I'm trying to say is that Peter was calling the culture to conversion, seeing it as a sort of prodigal Christian entity. And for much of the culture, this is true and this restorative approach is what is needed. Dorothy, I think, recognized more that there were also some new things, a sort-of new generation of culture that was not in need of reconciliation only but of baptism. It needed to be re-evangelized and called, in effect, for the first time, to be joined to the True Vine. I think Dorothy's approach is implied in Peter's. But both approaches are necessary. And both are radical.

  5. Indeed. This conversion is exactly what Peter meant by his oft repeated call to "cult, cultivation and culture."


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