By Patrick Malone
David Fincher’s serial killer thriller Se7en (so-stylized) is the film for the post-liberal moment.
Se7en, admittedly gruesome and therefore not for everybody, revolves around police detectives trying to catch a serial killer who kills by forcing his victims to embody their vices to a lethal degree; a glutton is killed by being force fed. The killer wants to demonstrate to the polity the self-destructiveness of the citizens’ vices, alluding to the perdition Dante Alghieri depicts in his Divine Comedy. The detectives, on the other hand, one a careerist who pressured his lover to procure an abortion of their child, the other reckless, conceited, and uninterested in literary or practical wisdom, aren’t paragons of human flourishing.
That’s all the plot we need, but we’ll observe the film’s ending has been described as “horrifying” and a “bleak joke” for the way in which the detectives fail to prevent the killer from executing his plan, and we want to consider just what is horrifying about that ending. We suggest it’s not simply the apparent temporal victory of evil, or a sort of nihilism, but how the substantively neutral proceduralism of the detectives sputters in the face of a moral vision which they cannot refute without proposing an alternative substantive moral vision.
Criticisms of purportedly neutral liberal proceduralism either which denies having a substantive vision or the substantive vision of which amounts to designating individual licence as the highest good of society are having a moment. Under this liberal umbrella fall both “left-liberals” (“liberals” or “progressives”) and “right-liberals” (“conservatives”). The “post-liberal” criticisms come from various directions, but for us the most relevant is the Catholic criticism, sometimes taking the form of integralism, which The Josias defines in its (rather relatively) famous Three Sentences:
Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.
The temporal end of society involves participation in the common good, of which a useful exposition can be found in Charles De Koninck’s On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists and The Principle of the New Order. He describes the common good as being universal and superabundant; it isn’t a good an individual possesses by herself, but which the members of a community possess together, and God is the “proper good which all things naturally desire as their highest and greatest good.” This is a good manifest in the diversity of creation, as what is lacking in one creature’s manifestation of divine goodness is supplemented in another’s; a community which allows systemically a subset of that community to languish, even if not because of active or overt prejudice, fails to achieve the common good because the good is not shared among the community. The excellence of a society can be measured in the degree to which its members, created in the Imago Dei, reflect that image; the society must assist and direct its members in achieving the perfection of that end, by the power of God. Finally, sin may occur when the appetite for the individual’s private good isn’t “ruled” according to the “superior” common good, and human will is not ordered properly towards God.
Pope Leo XIII, in Immortale Dei, teaches that
civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the well-being of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek.
He proposes no specific mode of government, but emphasizes that whatever form government takes, truth and justice must guide civil authority to secure the common good, and while Church and state are supreme authorities in their spheres, they are still connected as are the body and the soul. As he teaches in Rerum Novarum, “since the end of society is to make men better, the chief good that society can possess is virtue.” Likewise, Pope St. John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus, identifies the “spiritual void” which
deprived the younger generations of a sense of direction and in many cases led them, in the irrepressible search for personal identity and for the meaning of life, to rediscover the religious roots of their national cultures, and to rediscover the person of Christ himself as the existentially adequate response to the desire in every human heart for goodness, truth and life
as the fundamental flaw leading to the downfall of communism, but it’s hard not to consider secular “neutrality” and nonsubstantial proceduralism as captured by this language. Today, Pope Francis is contributing to the post-liberal charge, particularly in Laudato si’ and its denunciations of the “technocratic-utilitarian heart of the modern project” and emphasis on the order of creation.
Therefore, from a Catholic perspective, a political or legal order which declines to assist pursuit of the end of human life and the common good or which considers that end to be the licence to do what one wants and which privileges a proceduralism without moral substance is imperfect.
So, let’s come back to Se7en. In Se7en, the detectives simply want to catch the killer according (at least sometimes) to their procedures, ignoring questions of virtue and the common good except to the extent they find them revealing of the killer’s psychology and plan. Neither is interested in improving the community qua community by establishing the means of common flourishing, but they are only willing to embody the force of the state in coercing citizens not to kill other citizens. Se7en, in other words, depicts the conflict between proceduralism which seeks only to manage the community’s vices and perverse post-liberalism which seeks to inspire a more substantive moral purpose.
To riff on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate, the killer perceives the truth that the community is failing qua community by engendering vice, but instead of loving and pitying sinners, or instructing the ignorant with love, he deliberately accelerates the unravelling of humanity which vice causes, out of some utilitarian calculation that the loss of these lives is worth the virtue he thinks he will inspire (contrary to the common good’s presumption of respect for each human person as such). From this perspective, the problem isn’t simply that the killer usurps the power of the state as a vigilante, but that his policing of the polity lacks love and is become as a cymbalum tinniens while the state has no mandate beyond preventing the killer from interfering with the life of others.
The cymbal reverberates long after the clanging stops. Despite the perversion of the killer’s moral vision, the detectives’ proceduralism is left stammering: the killer needs to be confronted with the incoherence of his sinning to promote virtue and shown a different way in which the community could be inspired to pursue the common good, but the detectives can’t offer this because of their immorality and because their offices won’t allow them to articulate that vision, meaning the killer’s moral vision is essentially unchallenged. The community is left to suffer this plight again and again, while the audience sees the barrenness of the proceduralist response. The horror isn’t that the killer fulfills his purpose or that there exists no good answer to his sins and errors, but that our proceduralism might have no better answer than the detectives’.
Se7en prescribes nothing, but hints at something better in its allusions to Dante. Strangely, the detectives cite the Purgatorio instead of the Inferno, although the Inferno is more famous and perhaps more obviously relevant to the killer’s demonstrations of sin’s wages in its depictions perdition and anti-community, individuals unravelling alone in hatred. This unintuitive emphasis on the Purgatorio suggests a community which climbs the mountain to the Earthly Paradise together in penance, learning to embody virtue by the grace of God through the intercession of His saints, singing hymns of praise as one Church. The Purgatorio is permeated with the liturgy, the worship of God as the one body of the Church, in which the community turns East and contemplates the highest good. Se7en doesn’t go as far as that, but Dante does and we should.
Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
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