May 2018 Print

The Three Estates and the Counterrevolutionary Vocation

by Dr. John Rao

Catholics generally think of modern revolutions in conjunction with the religious persecutions that have frequently accompanied them. But if believers wish to fight systematically against such horrors—that is to say, if they wish to engage in militant counterrevolutionary action—they should first seek to understand the underlying principles shaping the more Catholic political and social order that the revolutionary vision ravaged.

Those principles were not more suitable for promoting Catholic Christendom because of any supposedly unbreakable connection with hereditary monarchies. Such monarchies could indeed be legitimate and good, but they did not always act for the benefit of Christian order. The superiority of the pre-revolutionary vision was really owed to its innate sense of respect for the political and social dimension of human vocations in life. And it is for this reason that I would argue that it is an absolutely essential part of the vocation of any counterrevolutionary activist who is concerned for a substantive restoration of Christendom to recapture the broader understanding of that concept that I am referring to here.

A Broader Sense of Vocation

Normally, when we speak of vocations we think of these on a personal level, with regard to a specific individual’s basic career choice. In the Catholic world, this is usually even more limited to treatment of a personal decision for the priesthood or religious life. But here, too, we are quite used to recognizing the fact that a particular individual vocation emerges out of a social context; out of an environment that nurtures and encourages a growing child’s inclination to enter the clergy or a convent. That fact alone underlines the truth that the social institution called the family has a vocation, part of which involves preparation of their children for making proper lifetime choices that could involve responding to the call of God.

But the family and its individual members live and perfect themselves under the authority of a variety of other societies, all of which, insofar as they address legitimate physical and spiritual needs, have the right to exist. One of these societies is the State, whose vocation is to stand as earthly guardian over all the other social organizations that enable men and women to live humanly and justly in this world of nature and pursue their personal perfection. Still, for the State to perform its vocation of overall guardianship properly, it is compelled to gain knowledge of what the vocations of all of these many other societies demand. For, if it did not do so, it would be operating as a cripple, with only a partial appreciation of all of man’s needs.

Western Catholic States displayed an awakening to this aspect of their vocation in their theoretical—and often quite practical—recognition of their need to consult with representatives of the other social authorities in Christendom, grouped together under three fundamental headings: those of the clergy, the nobility, and the commons. This was because, despite the many diverse social entities composing each of these groups, each could be seen as possessing an internal unity of basic life pattern. Each of the three called attention to a distinct “station” in life—or, to use the proper legal term, a distinct “Estate”—reflecting its own particular vocation. A State open to the message of its own vocation as the guardian of social order knew that it had to hearken to those vocational messages coming from these three basic sources of truth about man and the God who knows what man needs.

A New Awakening

Awakenings sometimes emerge from unexpected stimuli. The concept of the Three Estates is one of them. It was first brought up by several prelates trying desperately to keep alive the broken institutions of Charlemagne’s Empire in the bad times of the tenth century. What their discovery of the three basic stations in life taught them was the necessity of a total separation of the tasks of clergy, what at this point must be labeled “soldiery,” and commons into those of men who “pray, fight, and work.” The only exception to this rule in their minds was that accorded to the Emperor, who, while primarily engaged in the task of fighting in command of his soldiers, also joined with those who prayed because of his special anointing with sacred oils. Everyone else was relieved of the responsibility of contributing to the sanctification of the social order and, quite frankly, of working for his own personal salvation as well. Those who prayed took care of that duty for them.

This vision of the Three Estates was transformed due to the victory over the Catholic mind won by the chief enemies of the prelates in question: the monks of Cluny and their allies in other monasteries. While in no way denying the particular functions of the three stations in life, the message of Cluny was that each of them had to perform their tasks in a meaningful, vocational, spiritual context supporting their ultimate sanctification. That meant that each of them inevitably had to contribute to the lifting up of the social order as a whole. And it was this message that won its way into the policies of the Roman Pontiffs and those reforming Catholic Emperors and Kings of the High Middle Ages whom we most revere.

What did their specific vocations teach the State, the guardian of the social order as a whole? It taught that characterizing the clergy is plain. It testified to the supreme supernatural end of all men giving life on earth its meaning, and for this existential reason, the clergy was given pride of place as the First Estate. The commons, the last of the trio, while most diverse in its composition, nevertheless bore vocational witness to the necessity of that daily labor, in all its forms, that is required for the very physical survival of men destined for an eternity with God.

Second Estate

Particularly interesting was the social message coming from the vocation of the soldiery forming the Second Estate. This teaching was two-fold in character. On the one hand, it spoke to the State of the need for manly strength, the fighting spirit, without which a world subject to sin cannot maintain itself against the all too powerful forces of evil. On the other, it instructed it regarding the immense importance for the stability of the social order of family and the family’s cultivation and respect for continuity.

It developed this second message as a kind of accident of history, due to Cluny’s efforts to redirect the rather nasty soldiery of the time to the service of the just war, and the pride with which those knights won over to the call to a crusading vocation passed down a sense of the need to maintain their initial dedication to their descendants, generation after generation. Through this consecration of their families to crusading justice, a Second Estate that had been a rapacious soldiery became a respectable nobility, the definition of the latter being a class that “knows” what it is and where it comes from; in this case, from Christian obligations rooted in the family past.

All three of these Estates taught their specific vocational messages to the State and the society it guarded by means of an education proper to their different stations, rendered visible to the world outside by variance in dress, language, and esprit de corps. Moreover, given that the work of the monks of Cluny was first aimed at teaching the soldiery the spiritual dimension of its vocation, the sense of crusading militancy that the Second Estate developed tended to hover over all of the reform movement of the High Middle Ages. This gave to the vocations of the clergy and the commons a Catholic crusading spirit as well. In short, the State learned of the need to be spiritual, militant, and respectful of family, tradition, and work, all at one and the same time.

If the guardian of social order were to be guided solely by the First Estate, it could, at worst, become a mere clerical tool, and, at best, degenerate into an ethereal entity incapable of defending or feeding itself. If it were placed purely in the hands of the nobility, it could become an impossibly warmongering force obsessed with family lineages and their class pride. And if the commons were in uncontested control, it could dedicate itself purely to a soulless and unmanly concern for an endless work of supplying goods that could be consumed. The sinful tendencies of all groups and their individual members always made the usurpation of power to serve but one corrupted vocation possible. The vocation of the guardian of the social order was to beat these down and allow all three together to keep the ship of State on its proper course.

The Essence of the Revolution

It is precisely this hearkening of the State to the messages of the three authoritative social vocations that the modern revolutionary spirit cannot permit to function. For the essence of the Revolution politically is its reduction of the social order to being a plaything of sovereign individuals, stripped of the militant guidance coming from the vocations teaching the need for a unified submission to messages regarding the importance of Revelation, the family, tradition, and work, and thereby left defenseless before the demands of their fallen personal desires and wills. It was this de facto abolition of any substantive reality of authoritative social institutions that turned the French Estates General into a National Assembly publishing a Declaration of the Rights of Man confirming that it was now the naked individual whose fallen liberty guided the ship of State. And just in case one thinks that that revolutionary spirit was limited to France alone, it is important to note that it was the same atomistic (and materialist) individualism that John Locke handed down to the American revolutionary experiment, the political logic of which was really only made known to the colonists through Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet, Common Sense.

What this liberation of the individual meant became swiftly clear for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. It meant first of all handing over the State to the guidance of the majority of individuals; that is to say, the commons. One of the first proponents of a French National Assembly, the Abbé Sieyès, already indicated in his famous pamphlet, What is the Third Estate, that this exaltation of the commons required the divinization of its vocation—productive work—as the sole force capable of guiding the properly constituted State.

It is no wonder, in consequence, that our revolutionary society is contemptuous of a world where the “unproductive” clergy and nobility played a significant role in the life of the State. It is no surprise that it understands the word “corporation” to signify a business enterprise alone, rather than all social organizations, the family included, as our pre-revolutionary ancestors did. It stands to reason that it thinks of an aristocracy only in terms of money. There can be no shock in its promotion of a university education that denigrates theology and the liberal arts, offering a cornucopia of “productive” doctorates in real estate and finance in their place. Should anyone be amazed that the urban pre-revolutionary experience of all three Estates living together even in the same buildings dissolved into money segregated neighborhoods? Or that our revolutionary world lost interest in the family, whose needs, traditions, and continuity were subordinated to iron-clad demands of production and consumption, long before any Red assault upon it—as Marx himself indicates in his Communist Manifesto?

Marxism and the Silencing of the Estates

But the mention of Marx brings up a further development of the social silencing of the messages coming through the vocations of the Three Estates. For, alas, all productive flesh and blood members of the commons proved not to be equal. “Freeing” atomistic individuals actually meant liberating the weak among them to become the tools of the strongest, “productive,” personal passions and wills. This meant unjust subjection first of all to the rich, the moneymen, the bourgeoisie, and their particular property concerns. Behind them came the productive working classes, who were led to demand not a just, but a full control over society under the influence of the will of atomistic, materialist, Marxist intellectuals. And running alongside of both capitalists and workers came the productive entrepreneurs ready to supply the atomistic, materialist demands for satisfaction of every moral perversion known to man as well as the consequences flowing from them. Why should they not have their chance to dominate the social order? After all, an American Supreme Court justice said not so long ago that everyone had to the right to create his own reality.

States in our revolutionary society have lost their vocation of proper guardianship of the social order that had been nurtured by an openness to the messages delivered them through respect for the vocations of all the social institutions in whose bosom individuals truly grow and gain a perfection to be completed in eternity. These social institutions were those grouped, historically, in the West under the heading of the Three Estates. The result is that the “nations” that Christ wished to accept the Gospel can no longer be converted, and the naked “individuals” who become the sole object of evangelization become correspondingly less likely to respond to a teaching that, after all, itself comes through submission to an authoritative society: the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.

Yes, we still have our personal vocations to nurture, but we cannot be guided to understand and nurture these properly until the complete concept of vocation is regained. We desperately need a revival of all of our social institutions and their flesh and blood incarnation of their specific vocations for our own benefit, beginning, most importantly, with the Church and the clergy. Fighting for this revival is the vocation of the counterrevolutionary. And, as Ernst Jünger tells us in his remarkable novel, On the Marble Cliffs, that counterrevolutionary must go out into battle today with a better knowledge both of his duty as well as the character of his enemy than ever before in history:

“Now battle had to be joined, and therefore men were needed to restore a new order, and new theologians as well, to whom the evil was manifest from its outward phenomena down to its most subtle roots; then the time would come for the first stroke of the consecrated sword, piercing the darkness like a lightning flash. For this reason, individuals had the duty of living in alliance with others, gathering the treasure of a new rule of law. But the alliance had to be stronger than before, and they more conscious of it” (Auf den Marmorklippen, Chapter XX).