8) CHRISTIAN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
The relation between Christianity and Political Philosophy is itself an aspect of the problem of reason and revelation and their interrelationship. To introduce someone to this general topic a number of books might be mentioned: 1) Frederick Wilhelmsen's Christianity and Political Philosophy; 2) Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought; 3) Jacques Maritain, Man and the State; 4) Thomas Molnar, Politics and the State: The Catholic View; 5) Charles N. R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought; 6) Yves Simon, The Philosophy of Democratic Government; 7) John Paul II, Centesimus Annus; 8) Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity; 9) C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, and 10) David Walsh's After Ideology are books that will get one started. Ernest Fortin's three volumes of essays in political philosophy published by Rowman & Littlefield, 1997, should also be added.
My books: 1) Christianity and Politics; 2) The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval and Modern Political Philosophy; 3)Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy, 4) The Church, the State and Society in the Thought of John Paul II, 5) At the Limits of Political Philosophy: From "Brilliant Errors" to Things of Uncommon Importance,” 6) Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society, and 7) On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, deal in one way or another with this relationship.
Under the “New Series,” I will add the following essays: 1) On Leisure and Culture,” 2) “the Sum Total of Human Happiness,” 3) “‘Islam Will Not Be the Loser,’” 4) “American Politics and Roman Catholicism,” 5) “The Point of Medieval Political Philosophy,” 6) “Structures of Good – Structures of Evil,” 7) “Worship and Political Philosophy.”
Under 9) I will include a list of other related essays.
CATHOLICISM AND THE FORMS OF DEMOCRACY
A Reflection on the Nature of the Best Regime
The political rights of democracy presuppose the moral rights of humanity, and if the humanitarian movement had not inspired Western society with an enthusiasm for social justice and for the cause of the weak and the oppressed, modern democracy would never have come into existence.... Democracy is aristocracy for all; it is levelling up, not levelling down.
People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve. Man remains above all a being who seeks the truth and strives to live in that truth, deepening his understanding of it through a dialogue which involves past and future generations.
The most philosophic of political questions involves a consideration of the best regime. The reason for this philosophic context is because historical experience teaches us that there are good and bad political regimes both in history and in the writers on constitutions, as Aristotle pointed out in the Second Book of his Politics. These differences in regime require some clarity of account because they relate to the question of whether man's highest end is itself social and whether this highest end is to be identified with an existing city.
Political regimes are classified according to the principles of human action and legal structure that are found among men in various eras and areas of the world. Aristotle, following Plato, suggested furthermore that this wide variety of regime could be classified into simple descriptive forms, each of which would have a wide variety of particular aspects unique to it. Thus, Aristotle described four or five differing forms of democracy or oligarchy. Still each regime would be recognizable as falling within one or other form of rule, itself ordered to the end of human action related to happiness or to man's highest end as revealed in the action itself. This why Aristotle could say that a democracy, for instance, was both the rule of the many, usually the many poor, and the rule of a kind of liberty presupposed to no further purpose but itself (1117a40-b10).
The reason why these various existing regimes required a more philosophic analysis was because some constitutions were held to be better or worse than others. Thus, the principle of judgment upon which such distinctions of good and better, bad and worse were made needed explication and defense. Clearly no regime, whether the simple ones of monarchy, aristocracy, polity, tyranny, oligarchy, or democracy, or the combined or mixed regimes, was identical to another. Differences really existed. The great act of political prudence, one that requires the highest courage if done properly, is to identify and call a regime not what it calls itself, but what it is in terms of good and evil, a good and evil reflective of the souls of the citizens and the rulers.
One might, perhaps, maintain that Sparta or Thebes or Athens (or a pari any existing regime) could be defended simply on the basis of the given form or rule of constitution that each chose to follow, what we might call nationalism today. Such a regime was justified for no theoretic purpose but simply because it was chosen or evolved in history. Its justification was its antiquity or its revolution, its having successfully established, however established. But this position would involve the acceptance of a kind of relativism that would implicitly deny the moral diversity of the regimes. International relations would then consist in non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries because there existed no criteria of comparison at any theoretic or practical level.
Nevertheless, a philosophic common sense noticed that each civil order revealed a different soul in its citizens, often because of a different conception of God, man, and world. Practice and theory were ever related. But these differences of soul were rooted ultimately in the virtues and vices that were found displayed in all men over time. In history, observers like Thucydides and Aristotle noticed that there was a kind of recurrence or return of regimes even granting that each regime was in many ways unique. Political philosophy, in other words, was possible. Regimes could not logically defend their ruling practices merely on the basis of that such was what they did and chose to do. Possibly the historic case of China, in the light of Western political philosophy, is a most interesting one precisely because of the way it does relate to these classification of regimes while maintaining to itself some complete independence of theoretic comparison.
But the theme of the best regime also has theological overtones. St. Augustine, in some degree responding to Plato, while using words of the Psalms, spoke of the "Republic" as the "City of God." He wanted to argue that no political city, however good, corresponds to the highest end for which men are created in the first place. The best philosophic regime, a question that necessarily and legitimately arose from the experience of varying civil life, nevertheless, seemed to leave itself open to a kind of natural frustration, as if in its own terms it had no proper resolution. In a very real sense, the reality of differing regimes made it necessary to pose the philosophic question of the best regime.
At the same time, however, philosophy had to admit that the best regime had no proper theoretic or experiential counterpart among the actual regimes. It existed only in "speech," and yet, without this existence in speech, in the argument kept alive by the philosophers or the faithful, existing cities would have it all to themselves, their justification would be their own word. But the pragmatic politicians had a point, if the best regime could not exist, if all actual regimes were imperfect, then the vain philosopher might very well tear down the world in the search for something he could not in principle deliver. The origin of much turmoil, thus, was not in the politician but in the heart of the philosopher who wanted to believe he did have the formula for the best regime. The philosopher who did not know the limits of philosophy turned out, in the end, to be the worst of the tyrants. In Christian theory, the proper relation of faith and reason arose at precisely this point in political philosophy.
The "two cities," the "best regime" -- I suppose in considering best and worst regimes, it is not out of place to recall a campaign incident of Theodore Roosevelt while he was still a Republican and before he formed his own Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt, on the platform, kept being interrupted by a heckler who shouted at him from the crowd, "I'm a Democrat!" "I'm a Democrat!" At last, Roosevelt had to quiet the man down as he was disturbing his delivery. He turned to the heckler, "May I ask the gentleman why he is a Democrat?" "My grandfather was a Democrat," the man replied. "My father was a Democrat, and I am a Democrat."
To this logic, Roosevelt answered, "Suppose that your grandfather had been a jackass, and your father had been a jackass, what would that make you?" The heckler, not to be outdone, shouted back defiantly, "A Republican." So much for the best regime in our time, but I do, whatever the case with Republicans, Democrats, and Bull Moosers, want to begin to link the theoretic question of the best regime to the religious tradition in a more careful manner.
Recently, I was at a Conference in which the presumed "horror" of Pius IX's famous "Syllabus of Errors" was mentioned. The oft-cited Number 80, the last of these now infamous "errors," reads as follows: "The Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself to progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." What is condemned as an "error" is evidently nothing less than what seems to be the modern world itself. It would be difficult, admittedly, in our proud age to find anything, on the surface at least, more obscurantist than this condemnation! This passage has often been cited by hostile polemicists to demonstrate just how backward the Church really is, if left to itself.
The Franciscan priest who brought up this now embarrassing passage seemed to think the words meant exactly what they sounded like, that the Church condemned everything about modern civilization. And why not? Does the passage not, in a rare moment of honesty, affirm just what many think the Church is really about? But the fact is that this troubling sentence, in context, meant something rather the opposite from what it might sound like at first reading. The sentence was in fact on the side of real religious liberty and against an early form of the absolutist state, however illiberal in terminology. Besides, we might add over a century later, that many from ecologists to social reformers are busy condemning modern civilization, so perhaps Pius IX was merely before his time!
The irony and paradox of these differing understandings about modernity serve as the background to what I want to argue about the relation between Catholicism and democracy. Democracy has become more and more in modern times, including in Church documents, the word used for the classical notion of "the best regime." In the classics, however, as I have noted, the best regime existed only in speech; and in one sense, it remains so even until today. Since at least the French Revolution, however, the efforts to put the best regime into existence have most often been anti-religious in principle and have generally resulted in a form of terror or tyranny hardly known to the ancients, who in fact knew something about this very topic of tyranny and its relation to the best regime.
The classical writers, moreover, distinguished between the best regime in speech and the best practical regime. The very notion of the best practical regime included in various manners the theoretic truth that no earthly regime would or could be perfect so that claims to establish it were at best illusory and at worst dangerous. The best practical or common sense regime included actual human beings, the majority of whom, as St. Thomas remarked, were imperfect.
My thesis is that the best regime in practice, or the best practical regime, which is possible, if perhaps rare, will not exist without the right ordering of soul itself rooted in orthodox religion. Whatever be the secular orthodoxy of the "separation of church and state," the fact is that the state will not be safe or limited if the moral lives of the citizens is in objective disorder. In any case, the best regime in practice will always be extremely precarious because of original sin. The doctrine of original sin meant that even the rulers, perhaps especially the rulers, revealed in their actions the abiding possibility of sharp deviation from the good.
Thus, I do not deny that such a "best" practical regime can be clarified by the philosophers and put into effect, if rarely, by the politicians. What I do suspect, however, is that its abiding practice and its theoretical outlines will not be possible or clearly understood without this grounding in revelation that itself must have a clear awareness of the priority and legitimacy of the philosophic question of the best regime in theory and the theological answer to it. This is the meaning and import of the contemporary notion that "democracy" ought to be the "form" of government for all of mankind, that it is, in fact, the best practical form. Without an understanding of original sin and virtue rooted in religion, without a theory of democracy that is not based simply in unrestricted liberty, no reasonably moderate and safe form of democracy, of the best practical regime will be possible.
When the British historian, E. E. Y. Hales, discussed the "Syllabus of Errors" (1867), to return to that document, he pointed out that all the "errors" cited in the Syllabus were taken from other ecclesiastical documents -- Number Eighty, in particular, from Jamdudum Cernimus of 1861. This latter document was concerned with specific Italian problems of the time. The Piedmont Government, that was in this period busy taking over various Papal States in its drive to unify Italy, had just, within its own territories in Northern Italy, suppressed convents, rejected any sacramental basis of marriage and any religious foundation for education.
As everyone understood this action in the context of Italian politics of the day, it was clear that these anti-clerical laws were naturally justified by the Piedmontese Government in the name -- what else? -- of "progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." It was thus maintained that anyone who was not in favor of suppressing convents, not enthusiastic for secular education or for state marriage, was, ipso facto, an opponent of "progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." Granted these terms so understood, no one could expect Pius IX, or any other right thinking person for that matter, to come out in favor of suppressing convents, exclusively state sanctioned marriages, and secularized education. Pius IX did not think that modern government had to embrace such principles to be progressive, democratic, liberal, or civilized.
A militarily helpless Pius IX was, consequently, merely arguing in protest against a concept of "progress, liberalism, and modern civilization" that would include, as part of its policy agenda, such intolerable and anti-religious laws. Already here, in other words, we have hints of a view of modern life and the modern state that insists on the absolute exclusion of religion as implicit in the very idea of progress, liberalism, and civilization. Count Cavour was by no means, in these actions, busy implementing a kind of Italian version of the First Amendment.
The Catholic Church is not and does not pretend to be "democratic" in its ecclesiastical polity (D2091). Paradoxically, this internal monarchical-episcopal form of ecclesiastical polity does not deny in principle that many of the institutions we designate as democratic were first formulated in the West by the constitutions of the religious orders. In fact, if the Church made itself into a democratically structured polity, the Church would not be what it was founded to be. The Church's ecclesiastical structure, though it has always contained many elective elements, is designed for a different purpose from the political institutions of human living together (convivium). The two institutions, Church and polity, are not in theory in contradiction with one another, unless, contrary to its purpose, one claims to be or absorb the other.
In principle, this difference of purpose between politics and Church already implies that political life does not by itself exhaust the purpose of human life. Both the things of Caesar and the things of God are to be "rendered" unto (Matthew, 22:22). The freedom of the Church to be itself is one of the classical reasons for the limited state, one of the reasons indicating why the state was not itself in total control of every aspect of human life. The limited state meant also that democracy, even understood as the best existing regime, was itself limited, subject to a human nature or reality that it did not make or create. The case for democracy as a best practical form of government is not a case for a "general will" type of democracy that finds nothing outside the human will but itself to define the purposes and nature of human life.
We can find, no doubt, other less exalted, but rather amusing theories about the origin of democracy than these ultimate reflections on will and populace. In Murial Spark's novel Memento Mori, I ran across the following scene in an old folks home in England. To his astonished aged friends assembled about him, Mr. Alec Warner, himself a somewhat skeptical and elderly gentleman, explained the rise of democracy in Britain in the following medicinal manner:
"The real rise of democracy in the British Isles occurred in Scotland by means of Queen Victoria's bladder." he said. "There had, you know, existed an idea of democracy, but the real thing occurred through this little weakness of Queen Victoria's...."
"When she went to stay at Balmoral in her latter years a number of privies were caused to be built at the backs of little cottages which had not previously possessed privies. This was to enable the Queen to go on her morning drive round the countryside in comfort, and to descend from her carriage from time to time, ostensibly to visit the humble cottagers in their dwellings. Eventually, word went round that Queen Victoria was exceedingly democratic. Of course it was all due to her little weakness. But everyone copied the Queen and the idea spread, and now you see we have a great democracy."
With no pun intended, we can see from this incident into what dark corners political philosophy in the great democracies might lead when we lose contact with the classics with their more exalted notions about the rise and fall of nations!
Yet, whatever we think of the origins of British democracy, however much we assert a relation between religion, right living, and respectable polity, Scripture is not itself a text of political organization or philosophy. The Bible does not replace somehow Aristotle's Politics, the Federal Constitution, or any other specifically political text, though indirectly it may have something essential for its completion to say to or about each. When Peter and John were commanded in Acts to stop preaching, to stop explaining what they had witnessed, they replied: "You must judge whether in God's eyes it is right to listen to you and not to God. We cannot promise to stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard" (4:19-21). One of the initial indirect limits of the state is found here in the denial of its claim to prevent or circumscribe all preaching about was "seen and heard."
This difference between Bible and polity, without denying that both are addressed to the same human beings, indicates that the City of God is not to be identified with Rome or with any other actual human city. It also means that human cities are to figure out for themselves how they are best to be configured for their limited but legitimate purposes. In making each human being specifically for Himself, God did not leave our kind with nothing to do for themselves, with nothing transcendent reflected in earthly deeds and obligations. Indeed, in the strongest possible terms one's eternal status seemed directly connected with what we did for one another (Matthew, 25:31-46).
Some cities obviously do this organizing of themselves better than others. This fact implies that the human mind has a capacity to judge good and better, bad and worse, in political affairs. Each citizen can first judge this difference in himself; and without this possibility of self-reflection, there would be no ethical aspect to a civil society since it is composed of individual persons with interior lives and capacities. To recall Plato, statecraft is rooted in soulcraft. Nor is this emphasis on the individual's freedom to forget that the human institution most likely to seek to substitute itself for God or Church is precisely the state. This danger was what in fact the ancient treatises on tyranny and the modern treatises on totalitarianism were really about.
Aristotle had already remarked, moreover, that if man were the highest being in the universe, politics would be the highest science (1141a20-25). Mortal man, however, was not the highest being but was capable of learning something, "however slim," as Aristotle put it, of the existence and nature of the highest things (1177b26-78a5). Aristotle even admonished us "not to listen" to those who told us to study only "human" things like politics, however worthy they were in themselves, but to devote ourselves to the divine and highest things however much we could. He quietly remarked that such study and contemplation would be worthy of itself and surpass all other studies. If there is any radical distinction between classical and Christian thought and liberal and socialist modernity, it lies precisely here, in the theoretic primacy of contemplation to practice, that is, to the question of whether practice was itself in some sense related to contemplation, to things that were not subject to the practical intellect.
Aristotle likewise understood that "democracy" in its original sense did not imply a good form of regime. In fact, it referred to the best of the worst existing simple regimes into which men could organize themselves according to the sort of virtue or vice they manifested in their souls. Classical democracy technically meant a regime based on "liberty," a liberty that had a specific meaning. It meant a regime founded on the idea that men acknowledged, both in theory and practice, no distinction among possible lives or principles. All lives were to be based on only their own choices, no matter what these choices were (1317a40-b16). In his Apology, Socrates put the matter most succinctly by pointing out that the Athenian democracy in principle could not recognize the difference between a fool and a philosopher, a fact that enabled Socrates to live as long as he did in Athens (#31-32).
Democracy in the classics thus carries with it the notion of institutionalized and possibly arbitrary will, including the power that goes with it. And the will, of course, while fundamental to any concept of virtue or vice, is, at the same time and for this very reason, the most potentially dangerous (and most exalted) of the human faculties. Classical political philosophy spoke of the cyclic change of regimes. Yet this rotation discourse did not hold that men were "determined" to repeat what went before, though they did tend to re-enact their histories in some sense, as Thucydides pointed out in the initial remarks to his Peloponnesian War (I, 22). Rather the change of regimes meant that classical philosophy understood the ranges of choice between virtue and vice, good and evil, that men were likely to embrace in their souls and institutionalize in their polities.
We can, perhaps, catch something of the central drama of the will in our civilization from a short Peanuts incident. As we look into the Brown's living room, Sally, Charlie's little sister, is sitting in a big arm chair watching television. Looking on from the side, we can see only her head and feet coming out of the chair. She has a rather blank, but still noticeably perturbed look on her face. For out of the television set before her comes these words: "... And now it's time for...."
In the second and final scene, we see Sally suddenly sit up, determinedly point the tv changer, which looks remarkably like a gun, at the offending set as if she is about to blow it out of the water. We see a "click." To the offending TV set that dares to tell her what her time is "for," Sally announces firmly and out loud: "No, it isn't." Sally thus displays the rebellious spirit that is associated with our capacity to distinguish good and bad, to embrace that democratic freedom that does not have to listen passively to television sets. She also symbolizes the defiant notion that we can do something about this intrusion and she perhaps foreshadows the hubris that seeks to do whatever we want.
Let me continue this discussion on Catholic ideas about democracy by citing what I consider to be the most challenging statement in John Paul II's Encyclical Centesimus Annus. In the early pages, the Holy Father had been recalling the teaching found in Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum. In general, both of these encyclicals are famous for dealing, perhaps belatedly, with modern social, political, and economic problems. Leo XIII confronted the charge, made popular by Marx, among other critics, that the Church's legitimate concern for the next world necessarily means that it is not concerned with the life and institutions of this world.
When it came to Centesimus Annus, however, Peter Berger remarked, rather acidly, that there was little new in it. "If one forgets the authorship of the document," Berger observed,
its analysis of the contemporary situation and its moral judgments certainly seem well informed, eminently reasonable, and sensitive to the moral ambiguities of modern constitutions. The arguments made are lucid, the conclusions are careful. Here and there one can find passages of considerable force; my favorite is the statement that "different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence." All the same, there is little here that sheds new light on the economic, political, and social processes of our time, and the moral observations are not new.
Yet, if my argument is correct, we should not particularly expect the Church to be in the business of shedding "new light on the economic, political and social processes of our time." In most things, the Church does not have to reflect on a problem arising among men until the problem actually does arise.
On the other hand, among the myriads of varying analyses of these affairs, we can expect the Church to be able to ascertain which of them is more fruitful and which more dangerous, particularly in the light of man's final purpose. In this context, it is probably not unfair to recall that the surprise of Centesimus Annus was that it did come down on the side of market economy, of profit, of liberal democratic institutions against the welfare state and highly bureaucratic government. Perhaps it is too much to imply that it also takes grace to see ordinary things. But in the world context of socialism and its heavy propaganda during the modern era, one cannot but be astonished at the remarkably sensible content of this encyclical.
Yet, as I have indicated, what is most noteworthy about this document of John Paul II is the following affirmation:
As in the days of Pope Leo XIII, this (social) doctrine is still suitable for indicating the right way to respond to the great challenges of today, when ideologies are being increasingly discredited. Now, as then, we need to repeat that there can be no genuine solution of the "social question" apart from the Gospel, and that the "new things" can find in the Gospel the context for their correct understanding and the proper moral prospective for judgment on them (#5, see also #51 and #59).
In the context of Berger's reservations, John Paul II would seem to suggest that men could to some degree figure out what works well and what works ill, even what works best. What was more unlikely was that they would be little able in practice either to judge rightly on most even political and economic things or bring them about in practice without "Gospel" or, I take it, grace and supernatural guidance. John Paul II is not afraid to challenge human autonomy in the name of the human good. Indeed, I think that the fall of Marxism itself represents one of the greatest challenges to the presumed autonomy of the modern social sciences themselves which not only did not predict this fall but have excluded by their methodology those forces of faith and philosophy that might in fact explain it or at least clarify it.
This passage on the Gospel and social problems, of course, is mindful of St. Thomas's reasons about why we might need a revealed law in addition to the civil law and natural law (I-II, 91, 4). St. Thomas was concerned that an improper understanding of man's final end might turn us back to corrupt the political or social order. Aquinas also judged, on the basis of the sundry theories vying for public attention, that most men would be confused about which themes are right and which are wrong. It looks very much like John Paul II is writing within this sort of background. Most people, St. Thomas thought, are too busy and distracted to be able to spend the time necessary to sort these things out. They still need to know, nevertheless, what to think and to do so that they might have some assurance that they are proceeding rightly in the eyes of God. Chesterton, in fact, thought this angle of reflection revealed a very democratic streak to St. Thomas' position.
John Paul II's Encyclical has been widely praised. Yet it is suspected of being very critical of certain democratic and economic practices. It even warns specifically about a form of democracy that is, in fact, considered in many ways to be the paradigm of democracy in our society. "Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person...," John Paul II wrote.
Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends (#46).
This agnostic form of democracy is obviously not to be identified with the best regime.
Interestingly, the Pope's response to this theory of democracy is not so much a theoretical as a practical one. The Holy Father affirms that if there is no "ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity" then "ideas and convictions" become instruments for power. On this premise, he concludes that the history of democracy without values easily turns into "open or thinly disguised totalitarianism." Many a perceptive politician or scholar may well have suspected this eventuality. In the Thomistic strain, what the Pope has done is to teach the great body of faithful that such eventualities are quite likely and therefore there is something quite wrong with the theories that justify them.
These are remarkable lines that need to be sorted out in further detail, but first, I should like to recall a passage I recently read from an essay arguing that the Catholic tradition has in fact stressed monarchy as its preferred form. One needs to be careful with this argument, of course. After all, Chesterton called the American Presidency the "last of the medieval monarchies." The long tradition of Catholic thought on politics has concluded that wide varieties of political forms are legitimate. Not all nations need to be under the same political form.
"The Catholic Church is not committed to any particular form of government," Michael Davies has remarked.
She will cooperate with an absolute monarchy such as that of Louis XIV, with a republican government such as that of Venice, and with a parliamentary democracy. What the Church has always insisted upon is that no matter how those holding authority in the state obtained their power they must accept that their authority to rule is derived from God, and that they must govern as his legates. The great heresy of our time is the French Revolutionary concept of democracy, that those who govern do so as delegates of the people, and that their mandate is to legislate in accordance with the wishes of the majority.
Here we have the two strands of Catholic thought coming together in one passage. The first concerns the legitimacy of all forms of government that allow the Church to achieve her spiritual purpose. This position does not presume to choose among the various forms, except to recognize that some forms are illegitimate, that is, disordered. The corollary is that the monarchical form is preferred, though, as St. Thomas himself indicated (I-II, 105, 5), this form need not exclude a democratic element.
But secondly there is the clear understanding that there is an absolutist or totalitarian form of democracy, attributed probably to Rousseau as its theoretical founder, and associated with the French Revolution as its modern embodiment. This second understanding of democracy is substantially the same one the Holy Father averred to in Centesimus Annus with its grounding in relativism and arbitrary freedom. This position stands in the direct line of descent from Aristotle's pejorative understanding of democracy. The clarifying of the various meanings of democracy as the best practical regime, then, is a very positive function of the teaching Church. It makes a considerable difference which form of democracy we live under as to the ease or difficulty of our reaching our spiritual end in truth as well as whether we can achieve any sort of true common good in this life.
In a much publicized thesis, Francis Fukuyama has reflected on the meaning of the collapse of socialism, a reflection the Holy Father himself pursued in Centesimus Annus. Substantially, Fukuyama argued that men have in fact finally learned the economic and political forms in which the greater part of them can flourish. The end of the 20th Century represents a time in which we know how we should be ruled and what sort of economy will produce an abundance of material goods for all of mankind. What remains to be done is mostly in the area of spirit and will to put into effect what we already know.
"We who live in the old age of mankind might come to the following conclusions," Fukuyama wrote.
No regime -- no 'socio-economic system' -- is able to satisfy all men in all places. This includes liberal democracy. This is not a matter of the incompleteness of the democratic revolution.... Rather, the dissatisfaction arises precisely where democracy has triumphed most completely: it is a dissatisfaction with liberty and equality.
Fukuyama rightly worries about what is to be done when all else is done.
Fukuyama primarily fears boredom and stagnation because a people who define their existence in economic or political terms, and do not attend to the transcendent issues, will soon discover that all their energy went into an essentially empty cause, even though in itself it has a certain importance. Whatever else this conclusion points to, it certainly suggests that man is an incomplete being precisely when, as Aristotle said, what is most "human" in him is mostly satisfied.
The Catholic Church, as the oldest living and organized institution in the world, has found it necessary to subsist in almost every kind of political system. It was in the Roman Empire. It knew about the Roman Republic. It lived and prospered with feudal institutions. It knew of the Byzantine Emperor and the Chinese Emperor. It knew of the Venetian Republic, of absolute monarchies, of modern constitutional states with their multiplicity of forms. It has known Muslin caliphates and Hindu rulers. The Papacy was itself a state, in which, as Harold Berman pointed out, many of the institutions of the modern state were first hammered out.
The Church has also been forced to explain how it was not itself a state, even though it must live and work in the world. It must explain how civil societies are natural institutions that ought to exist among men even though it is not itself a political institution. The establishment of so-called modern states since Machiavelli, the English Monarchy, the French Monarchy, then the French Revolution and the American founding, all have forced the Church to articulate to herself the reasons for civil society, reasons found largely not in Scripture but in philosophy. But this same experience has also required the Church to explicate to herself the reasons for differing kinds of civil society in the light of the her own purposes.
The Church is aware of a long theoretical discussion beginning at least with Plato and continuing through Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, to explain not merely the nature of the best regime but also of the nature of regimes less than the best. It has been the teaching of the Church that salvation could be achieved in both the best and worst actual regimes. The Church's martyrs were found both in the best regimes and in the worst.
However, the Church in agreement with the philosophers has not doubted that some regimes are better than others. In general, the Church has argued that it could peacefully leave to a given people the task of organizing its own constitutional structure. Provided the Church was free to preach and give the sacraments, the Church had little to say about the differing regimes. Indeed, a wide variety of regime was thought natural and even desirable, an indication of real freedom.
In recent years, as I have suggested, while it was theoretically recognized since the French Revolution that there could be such a thing as a "totalitarian democracy," the term democracy has come to be one used, not altogether comfortably, for "the best regime." Even Marxist states called themselves "republics" or "democracies." These terms are Roman and Greek and relate to the classical discussion that the best regime existed only in speech, while the best practical regime was a mixture of all the good regimes, with, as Madison implied, an effort to play the bad regimes off against each other. Moreover, the best theoretical regime could not be discussed without also implying a discussion of all regimes, including the worst, less than the best.
The Catholic Church has in its encyclicals and philosophical reflection sought to sort out the differing meanings of democracy and to relate this meaning to its own purpose in the world. The effect of this effort has uniquely been a contribution to the classical discussion of the best (and worst) regimes both in speech and in practice. "The modern experiment to live without religion has failed," Schumacher continued, "and once we have understood this, we know what our 'post-modern' tasks really are." This observation is essentially the Holy Father's understanding of the relation of Gospel and social order.
In recent years, however, a considerable confusion has been engendered particularly in religious circles for failing to maintain clearly the fact that sin must properly be personal. We hear thus a good deal of discussion about something called "social sin." Logically, if there is "social" sin, then there must be collective guilt and a collective being to bear this guilt. Collective guilt is, consequently, something that replaces personal guilt. We even hear of people "confessing" that they are responsible for the poverty or disorder in the world.
There is something alien, even presumptuous, about this form of confessional discourse. Classical thought was perfectly aware that different regimes had different purposes and laws which lead to their chosen goals. Clearly there was some relation between evil acts and government policy or form that enforced or encouraged such acts. This relationship seemed to be evident from common sense. On the other hand, the disorder found in civil society was primarily rooted in the acts of individual persons, even in the case of the established laws that reinforced them. John Paul II in Centesimus Annus (#25) reiterated that original sin was in some sense at the root of our civil disorders, but that neither original sin nor structural "sin" are the immediate causes of what goes wrong. Nothing goes wrong except through the wills of individual persons, through personal acts.
John Paul II, however, made a surprising conclusion in his discussion of original sin:
Humankind, created for freedom, bears within itself the wound of original sin, which constantly draws persons toward evil and puts them in need of redemption. Not only is this doctrine an integral part of Christian revelation; it also has great hermeneutical value insofar as it helps one to understand human reality. The human person tends towards good, but is also capable of evil. One can transcend one's immediate interest and still remain bound to it. The social order will be all the more stable, the more it takes this fact into account and does not place in opposition personal interest and the interest of society as a whole, but rather seeks ways to bring them into fruitful harmony. In fact, where self-interest is violently suppressed, it is replaced by a burdensome system of bureaucratic control which dries up the wellsprings of initiative and creativity. When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being (#25).
I cite this remarkable passage, not merely for its paradoxical defense of self-interest and creativity, but for its awareness of the disorder that comes into a civil society when it claims complete control for imposing or implementing the common good.
Flannery O'Connor, in a famous and oft-cited passage, made the same point as John Paul II, but in her own inimitable fashion:
The notion of the perfectibility of man came about at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century. This is what the South has traditionally opposed. "How far we have fallen" means the fall of Adam, the fall from innocence, from sanctifying grace. The South in other words still believes that man has fallen and that he is only perfectible by God's grace, not by his own unaided efforts. The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgment is out of place because man is not responsible.
Whether the South still maintains this orthodox view can perhaps be doubted in the light of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, jackasses and elephants. Nevertheless, O'Connor's point is the same as that of the Holy Father.
John Paul II, at a recent address to the inhabitants of Castelanmare in Italy, addressed this topic of a relation of social sin and personal sin.
Ethical recovery at a personal and social level are closely interrelated. Social injustice and evil, authentic structures of sin or social sins, as I already mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, are due to the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins (n. 16; cf. Sollicitudo rei socialis, n. 36). There is, therefore, a responsibility which no one can evade, claiming that the structures of sin are stronger than the power of individuals. Just as the "structures of sin" exist, there can be and must be the "structures of good," of justice, solidarity, mutual respect, and peace, the result and concentration of personal actions.
What is remarkable about this passage is the quiet insistence, rooted in revelation, that the Pope has that we not jeopardize our individual freedom, even if that freedom be used for evil. It is proper to talk about a good regime, about good and bad structures. But it is not proper to substitute these for personal actions and responsibilities even within such regimes and structures.
In this light, then, we can conclude these remarks on Catholicism and democracy. It is quite clear that the best theoretical regime is a question that leads directly to revelation for its proper understanding. Likewise, the worst regime need not only be a tyranny in the classical sense, but it is possible to conceive of a "democratic tyranny," one in which the philosophical foundations are relativistic and the political form or structure recognizes no objective order of soul or polity. Some economic and political forms are better than others, but no political or economic form obviates or obscures the level of personal sin and virtue that undergirds all regimes. The fear of boredom and moral disorder in lack of a proper earthly task or in the light of one more or less successfully understood is a legitimate one. But this boredom is only likely to occur when the transcendent questions are held to be subservient to political and economic institutions and forms.
The Church can talk of democracy and the best practical regime, while at the same time realizing that in history few if any have ever lived under such regimes. The purpose of the Church can be, and has been, achieved in any regime. On the other hand, grace and nature are interrelated. If "the experiment to live without religion" is over, as E. F. Schumacher held, this situation can only mean that the Gospel is in some sense necessary that even the proper earthly regimes, with their limited ends and adequate virtues, be seen to be freed from themselves having to substitute for man's transcendent purposes.
The principal purpose of the Gospel in politics is to free society from the burden of itself performing the function of God. Father Paissey, in the Brothers Karamazov, had it right:
For those who renounce Christianity and rebel against it are in their essence of the same image of the same Christ, and such they remain, for until now neither their wisdom nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create another, higher image of man and his dignity than the image shown of old by Christ. And whatever their attempts, their results have been only monstrosities.
This was, of course, the same point John Paul II had made about democracy based in relativism (#46).
Behind the historical and philosophical considerations of Christianity and democracy, then, lies this necessary clarification of the limits of the state and the forms of rule. Yet, in the end, Christopher Dawson was right, "Nothing could be more fatal to the spirit of Christianity than a return to Christianity for political reasons." The Kingdom of God, in all regimes, including the best practical regime, comes first. Having sought this, all these political and economic things fall into place because they do not, as they can, substitute for this very Kingdom.
St. Augustine agreed with Plato that the search for the best regime was a legitimate one. St. Augustine even could agree that the best regime existed in speech in some initial sense. What he could not accept was that the question had no meaningful answer, either in this world or the next. The classical discussion of Catholicism and democracy, when sorted out, is nothing less than a simultaneous posing of the best regime in theory and in practice and an awareness that the two regimes have some consistent relationship, one based in the centrality of the will that can both say "no" to the television set and "yes" to the Gospel without in either case forgetting either original sin or the Kingdom of God.
THE ROLE OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY IN POLITICS
"Man's conquest of himself means simply the rule of the Conditioners over the conditioned human material, the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce."
"And finally, Mr. Clinton allowed individuals to bring RU-486, the French abortion-inducing pill that may also be useful in the treatment of certain cancers and other diseases, into the U.S....."
-- Editorial, "The Abortion Tide Turns," The New York Times, January, 23, 1993.
James Boswell tells us that, as he was not in London in the year 1770, he did not have much conversation with Samuel Johnson. However, instead of his own memory and notes, he was able for this same year, 1770, to include in his renowned biography some of the Recollections of Johnson by the Rev. Dr. Maxwell, of Falkland, in Ireland. These recollections of the Rev. Dr. Maxwell are the source from which the following famous and amusing observation comes: "A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage married immediately after his wife died: Johnson said, 'it was the triumph of hope over experience.'"
More to the point of a link between Christian philosophy and politics, however, though this very Christian philosophy too has something to do with the complex relation of hope and experience, we might recall two other passages from the same Recollections. The first passage reads as follows:
Speaking of Boethius, who was the favourite writer of the middle ages, he (Johnson) said it was very surprizing, that upon such a subject, and in such a situation (referring to his impending condemnation to death by the Emperor), he (Boethius) should be magis philosophus quam Christianus.
Many thinkers before us, no doubt, have also been surprised by Boethius' unexpected source of "consolation," whereby on such an ominous occasion as his own condemnation to death, he preferred to meditate on Socrates rather than Christ.
My own approach here, however, though happily lacking the same urgency, will be rather different from that of Boethius. Reversing Johnson's remark about philosophy and Christianity, I will maintain the contrary position, to wit, eo magis Christianus, quo magis philosophus. When the chips are down, of course, I do think it better to be a Christian than a philosopher, though I doubt that such chips are ever really down. But I would suggest that precisely by being a Christian, by carefully reflecting on the exact Christian doctrines to see how it is possible to grasp what they might mean, one is a better philosopher, as philosopher.
No doubt this position recalls St. Thomas. It is also a view that rather often results in some considerable academic unpopularity if not downright animosity. It often ends in a kind of cultural ostracism or academic death, in a situation that itself no doubt could wish for some sort of consolation, philosophic or Christian, or both.
The second passage pertinent to this theme of Christian philosophy and politics reads: "To find a substitute for violated morality, he (Johnson) said, was the leading feature in all perversions of religion." If I might read this passage somewhat contrariwise, it suggests that an authentic, non-violated morality would need to rely on a religion that was not perverted. The theoretical substitute for the violated morality, I take it, would be the intellectual effort to justify and put into existence what was in fact contrary to classical morality.
This articulated substitute would initially take the form of a religion-like moral system, an ideology, if you will, that contained a kind of coherent consistency within the terms of the denial itself. This consistent ideology would systematically reject the essential points proposed by classical religion and morality. Its final perfection would be its successful organization of an actual political, if not world, order. This is, in its own way, the carrying out of Aristotle's remark that if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science. The principal role of revelation in politics, I think, is to reinforce Aristotle's understanding that man was not the highest being in the universe. Thus, man would be freed of the temptation to think that he was the highest being, a temptation which, when not theoretically counteracted, results in the practical effort to establish an alternate Kingdom of God on earth, however it be called.
To speak of precisely "Christian philosophy" is rash enough, I suppose, let alone the almost unheard of implication that such philosophy might have a "role" in or even a relationship with politics. On the other hand, in these days of rapidly increasing and radical separation of church and state, the topic is intriguing, however much neglected in academic discourse. The net effect of an exaggerated divergence between religion and politics is to elevate a certain kind of philosophic discourse, usually the discourse of tolerance or relativism, into the position of the sole arbiter of what subjects are allowed to be seriously spoken in the public forum. Christian philosophic speech in this context loses not so much its legitimacy as its voice or, perhaps better, it loses an intellectual framework in which its voice can be understood.
Though we should not be, we are, I think, quite surprised to hear, in this regard, no one less than the Archbishop of San Francisco tell a group of high school students that "The Catholic Church ... is the one thing in American society today which is exempt from the rules of fair play and which can be openly ridiculed and held up in contempt." We have, many of us, been assuming the immediate arrival of the famous "Catholic moment", wherein reasonable discourse and pious living would convince the skeptics of the missionary value of Catholicism. Instead, we have become more and more signs of contradiction and objects of growing hatred, the indications of which we are loathe to acknowledge.
In the beginning, I cited a passage from a New York Times Editorial commenting on President Clinton's order to allow individual usage of the abortion pill. In many circles, not excluding certain Catholic surroundings, this policy seems enlightened, belated, and good public strategy. I also cited C. S. Lewis' perceptive remark about how the human raw material, in "the world of post-humanity," as he called it, in our world that is, would be looked upon as something malleable before the will of zealous political "conditioners." Politico-philosophic leaders, in the name of their substitute vision, would employ the power of the state to put into being what is contrary to the natural structure of human worth and dignity and, likewise, contrary to the explicit statements of Catholicism about itself and its understanding of the worth and meaning of the human person.
Let me now cite, in the context of these remarks about philosophy, Christianity, and politics, from a speech that was given September 25, 1992. I cite it mostly, I think, because it illustrates better than anything else the thesis of the "culture wars," namely, that we are now, within this and other polities, entered into such radical divergences of opinion about what human life means that no real compromise, the essence of practical politics, is likely or even possible.
The passage reads as follows:
The argument against abortion is based not only on the data of faith but also on reasons of the natural order, including the true concepts of human rights and social justice. The right to life does not depend on a particular religious conviction. It is a primary, natural, inalienable right that springs from the very dignity of every human being. The defense of life from the moment of conception until natural death is the defense of the human person in the dignity that is his or hers from the sole fact of existence, independently of whether that existence is planned or welcomed by the persons who give rise to it. Every reflection on this serious matter must begin from the clear premise that procured abortion is the taking of the life of an already existing human being.... There can be no "right" to kill an already existing though yet unborn human being.
Now if I were to say that those remarks were made by Russell Hittinger or Hadley Arkes or Raymond Dennehy, no one would be surprised. Were I to suggest that they were made by Hillary Clinton, the air would be filled with consternation. In fact, of course, they were spoken to the Irish Bishops by John Paul II. What is to be noted about these remarks in particular, however, is that they claim to be spoken not merely in the name of religion but rather by religion in the name of reason. Indeed, they are made by a religion that insists that reason is not contradictory or alien to its doctrines and practices, one that insists that it must give valid reasons to show this consistent relationship. Today, in fact, the real cultural conflict is not between reason and science -- what the Holy Father said is, from a scientific point of view, absolutely accurate. Rather, the conflict is between such political ideology with its substitute counter-morality and science.
I would initially suggest, then, that the role of Christianity in politics is a philosophic one. It is to maintain the accurate statement of the truth of things, of what is, even the truth of science when science will not stand up for itself. It is to perform this clarification even when the words we use, like "choice," do not accurately describe the fact to which they refer. We destroy millions of already begun human lives with no scruple and little compunction. We do this drastic act in the name of a theory, in the noble name of "rights," in fact. This justification leads us to suspect that we must be much more careful than we have been in using the concept of rights.
We are now also legally permitted to use, with decreasing limits, the remains of aborted fetuses for human experimentation, another policy change we have been bequeathed by the new conditioners. And we use these human remains precisely because they are human and therefore most apt for human purposes. The contradiction is patent. We kill the incipient life because we say, with our Court, that it is only "potentially" human; then we use it, as the New York Times Editorial did, in the noble name of the common good, because it is actually human. The justifying principle stated in 1992 in the U. S. Supreme Court's Planned Parenthood vs. Casey -- "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life" -- makes it quite impossible to distinguish between a Hitler and a Mother Teresa, between a monster and a wise man. Ralph McInerny had it right, "We live in a time, philosophically speaking, when a lot of people have just given up on the pursuit of truth."
In thinking about this topic of Christian philosophy and politics -- abortion is my lest favorite topic and I hate even to allude to it -- I had originally intended to suggest something perhaps outlandish. Namely, I wanted to argue that political philosophy occupies a kind of privileged place between philosophy itself and revelation, while the contact between revelation and everyday practical life is almost immediate. Eternal decisions are made in the course of our regular days, whether we be philosophers, senators, or janitors, whatever be our polity, the best or the worst. There is, as it were, a Thomistic reason for the latter point and a Platonic reason for the former.
Political philosophy has to explain or justify the existence of the polity so that it does not kill its philosophers or saints (or babies) when the polity realizes that something clearly disordered exists within it. The truth of things, the whole of things, is properly the object of both philosophy and revelation. Though there is such a thing as truth known by intuition, even in politics, the truth of politics largely depends on the truth of articulated philosophy. Man does not make man to be man, Aristotle told us, but taking him from nature as already man, makes him to be good man. Nor does man live by bread alone, as Scripture taught. But both those who are to live the truth of things, and for Christianity this includes in principle everyone, and those who teach this truth must be allowed to live and to speak. Their very existence cannot be hostile to a polity, even when either they or the polity itself is disordered. In principle, indeed, their existence is the polity's purpose for existing, that is, to allow the highest things to exist within the context of the ordinary things. And among the highest things is the proper understanding of man, without which understanding there is no limit to politics.
But the spiritual life of the philosopher or saint, at its highest, in what transcends politics, consists, in part, in seeking to resolve the different claims of truth in such a manner that reason and faith are allowed to operate and to conclude issues in conflict. This is the Platonic point. The hostility of politics to truth -- the best existing city killed Socrates, the best Empire killed Christ -- is not good politics; the hostility of philosophers to truth is not good philosophy.
The Thomistic point is that the civil law is made for the generality of citizens, the majority of whom are neither perfect nor are they philosophers. This practical wisdom is not intended to suggest that therefore what the citizens "do" do -- the Machiavellian issue -- is quite the best norm for civil polity. Rather it is that most people need something more than their own experience and reason to know and do what is right. This something more is the purpose or "reason" for revelation. This is why it was "necessary," to use St. Thomas' term.
The things that are done that are wrong, however, remain wrong both in themselves and in their consequences, even when they are tolerated. It is probably not worth the effort to try to prohibit all wrongs or make a law about all right. The moral life is a thing that we ought, for the most part, to choose and reason to by ourselves. But for most people, it will be religion that will incite them to anything approaching the good life that is needed for the survival of any polity, let alone that is needed to save their souls. When Augustine finally came to address the topic of why the Romans declined, he found the answer in a moral context, in the way the Romans lived as judged by standards that even the Romans themselves understood. A sober reading of many of the things we confront every day makes it seem that the sober Romans, at their worst, would have been surprised at what we do to ourselves.
Irving Kristol, I think, caught some of this issue about religion and political decline. The rise and fall of liberalism is directly related to the rise and fall of secularism in American life, he remarked. "Secular humanism" is already showing signs of sterility and collapse. There is nothing on the left to replace this secular humanist position. But there is another kind of alternative. "Today, it is the religious who have a sense that the tide has turned and that the wave of the future is moving in their direction...," Kristol continued.
Religion is ... most important because it is the only power that, in the longer term, can shape people's character and regulate their motivation.... The reason is simple: It is not possible to motivate people to do the right thing and avoid the wrong thing, unless people are told, from childhood on, what the right things and the wrong things are.
The link between an accurate description of what we do and what we ought to do, whether the link be made by reason, as John Paul II indicated, or by religion, as Irving Kristol maintained, needs to be the continuing raw material of political philosophy, of what it is that it reflects on.
The things that are done that are wrong, however, remain wrong both in themselves and in their consequences, even when they are politically tolerated. In one sense, we might observe, religion is not under attack when its members do wrong things because they are wrong things. That they are likely to do wrong things is part of the Christian faith itself, the doctrine of the Fall. This is why there is an intimate link between the doctrine of forgiveness and the right order of polity even when many wrong or evil things occur.
Religion is only under attack when the wrong things themselves come to be intellectually considered to be right, or, in political terms, to be "rights," that is, when the affirmation of wrongs becomes itself enshrined in the laws and coercive power of the state as what is to be done. Thus, as St. Thomas argued, it is probably not worth the effort to try to prohibit all wrongs or make a law about all right. The moral life is a thing that we ought for the most part to choose and reason to by ourselves. This is the profound meaning of the adage that we should hate sin but love the sinner. We do not love the sinner when our political theory of tolerance becomes an intellectual definition of right and wrong depending on nothing other than whatever one's definition is.
In this sense, if I understand him rightly, St. Thomas would suggest that polities that do not right themselves with the aid of revelation will end up by being more and more unreasonable. They will continue to lower their sights and call the results reality. Chesterton suggested that a people that sets out to be "natural" somehow ends up by becoming "unnatural." This unreasonableness or unnaturalness will manifest itself in conduct. This disorder will henceforth be defined as good. This is Johnson's "violated morality" that results in a perverse substitute for religion. Activities and institutions contrary to reason and to the understanding of reason that is embodied in a given human nature, that, as such, has no specific origin in any human making, replace the activities and institutions said to manifest and support classical morality and religion.
What is the role of Christianity in politics? Linus has been diligently preparing for the school Christmas play in which he is to recite the passage that begins, "And the Angel said unto them, fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people." Lucy is listening to this recitation. She even compliments him, since he had embarrassed them all by forgetting his lines in the Christmas play of the previous year. Linus puts his coat on and prepares to go to the play. He is in a good mood. "I TOLD you I knew it," he boasts to Lucy. "I have a memory like the proverbial elephant." As he walks outside in the evening darkness, he happily and accurately repeats these lines again and again. However, in the next scene he suddenly reappears at Lucy's door. "What in the world? I thought you just left?" she exclaims. Thoroughly dejected, Linus replies, "I did, but I came back." Finally, to a Lucy with eyes shut in disbelief, he explains, "I forgot where the Church is."
Now, of course, this is the point I want to underscore in this matter of philosophy and politics. In thinking of these issues, we too do not want to forget where the Church is. In the first place, the New Testament is not a revelation about polity. Politics is not revelation's object. We will look in vain in the Gospels for a description of how to organize the state or how to promote policy. The role of philosophy for Christians is to elucidate what the state is when revelation does not give any particular guidance on the subject.
The Scripture is, no doubt, brash enough to tell us that there are things of Caesar. No other religion ever said that. But this same Caesar could be a bit of a tyrant. Under his authority, neither Christ, nor Paul, nor Peter survived. The obedience to the Emperor that Paul advised to the Romans seemed paradoxical when this same obedience meant the elimination of Paul himself. Surely the effect of revelation was not, as Nietzsche suspected, intended to promote tyranny by default.
But emperors who were not also philosophers of sorts were not the real threat. Brutality and individual corruption were normally passing things in history. Their evil was easily recognized and admitted. The really dangerous political leaders were those who had some grounding in philosophy, something about which Aristotle had already warned. Aristotle furthermore thought that the only cure of philosophical disorder was more philosophy, that is, correct philosophy. Paul himself, to be sure, looked upon the philosophers with a most skeptical eye. The wisdom of this world seemed closer to foolishness to him. The late Allan Bloom's book on the American mind surely would not have allayed Paul's suspicions about the intellectuals.
But if we put these strands of thought together, in the context of the role of Christian philosophy in politics, we can see that the fact that there are things that "belong to God" implies that there are things that do not belong to Caesar. The great drama of political philosophy is to protect the legitimacy of a place wherein truth can be spoken and lived. It does this best, if we recall Aristotle, through music and poetry, through virtuous habits, that enable the actual politician to sense the truth without ever himself having had the time fully to know it. Some very intelligent actual politicians, to recall Callicles, loved to talk philosophy in their youth. But on reaching political power, they chose to put it aside. They refused to talk about the relation of their ideas to truth, at which point they became, in Plato's dialogue, the most dangerous of men. Callicles, as the model of such rulers, remains, I think, in this sense, a very contemporary politician.
"Have I forgotten where the Church is?" someone might ask at this point. Here, I cannot help but recall Father Charles N. R. McCoy, who remains, in my view, the most insightful of Catholic thinkers who have devoted themselves to the understanding of political philosophy. He was concerned with the nature and direction of the modern mind as it has intellectually argued itself into independence from any norms of nature or revelation, into a kind of autonomous freedom that sees human nature as a kind of raw material open to its own refashioning. During the time that McCoy (1930's to 1970's) wrote, the most dangerous refashioners or conditioners seemed mainly to be Marxists. Yet, in reflecting on him, he was amazingly aware, not unlike the Holy Father himself at times, of a kind of incipient democratic tyranny that would, if anything, be more dangerous than Marxism.
What I would propose here, then, is that McCoy came the closest to describing in accurate philosophic terms what has gone wrong and why in the modern era. I do not mean that he is some kind of uncanny seer, but I do mean that the hard intellectual work required to understand the situation in which we find ourselves is depicted in his writings. Though he may, like Strauss, have been too harsh on Burke, McCoy understood why much of the contemporary liberal and conservative minds were not so much in opposition to each other but rather represented two sides of the same coin. He admired Marx for seeing that both were lacking critical intelligence about the need for intelligence at the center of things. For Marx this was the human intelligence, for McCoy it was the Prime Intellect to which human intelligence was in some sense open.
Furthermore, McCoy saw that religious thinkers themselves were more and more imitating in their theology philosophical principles and attitudes from modernity that could only transform religious thinking into pious versions of what was going wrong in the secular world. McCoy, I sometimes think, is more important for theology than he is for political philosophy. He understood why it is, in a sense, that we have so few "Catholic" universities wherein intellectually the validity of the defined positions of the Church is presented and argued as relevant to philosophy and especially to politics.
But in order to make the point I want to make in these considerations, let me cite a remark of Charles Taylor in his (November, 1991) Massey Lecture on Canadian Radio. Taylor sought to explain the origins of the notion of authenticity as it has come to be understood in modern philosophy. What interests me here is the understanding of authenticity as the antithesis to and almost parody of the magnanimous man of Aristotle or the saint of Christianity. We aspire more and more to be led by such apparently autonomous and authentic men, those whose warrant is self-realization and whose freedom consists in putting their own ideas into reality, with no check from what is.
This is how Taylor describes such an authentic man:
Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfillment or self-realization in which it is usually couched. This is the background that gives moral force to the culture of authenticity, including its most degraded, absurd, or trivialized forms.
It is easy to see that some form of authenticity is a Christian virtue, that we need to know what we do. We need to take into consideration our own unique lives, yet not be hypocritical. But a Christian authenticity would begin, it seems, with Voegelin's remark, based in a true humility, that "we all experience our own existence as not existing out of itself but as coming from somewhere even if we don't know from where."
Why I want to refer to McCoy in this context, however, is not because of his doubts about the project of Strauss to revive classical political philosophy. McCoy himself subscribed to the need for some radical revival of political philosophy as such. But he doubted the success of such an endeavor without a Christian component to this revival. St. Thomas was more than a welcome preserver of Aristotle, as he is often pictured by the Straussians. St. Thomas increased philosophy because of revelation. His philosophical conclusions as such did not take a form that a non-Christian could not understand or accept. Rather McCoy explained how such modern authenticity came to conceive that it gave law to itself, how it came to hold that there was no place for a natural law and a revelation addressed through it.
Charles N. R. McCoy had a great appreciation for Marx and considered him a philosopher of great insight. With the presumed death of Marxism, we might wonder about the validity of McCoy's thesis. McCoy's thought was based on the awareness of an abiding prudence or practical wisdom that existed in certain strands of the political tradition, strands articulated best in Aristotle and St. Thomas.
Claes Ryn has justly remarked, in the context of both Strauss and McCoy, that "choosing between modern and premodern thought is not a real possibility." Ryn argued against a kind of abstract intellectualism that did not really embody principles in reality. The Thomist notion of prudence and the Christian doctrine of Incarnation are, of course, very much along these lines. Indeed, even Marx, as McCoy thought, was concerned with a kind of species-man whereby everything of the universe came to exist in each person, though it seems that Aristotle's notion of friendship might be a better solution to the same problem.
The question asked today is whether the intellectual critique of modernity as something intrinsically opposed to human life in the Aristotelian or Thomist sense remains viable? Paul Johnson has asked, in this regard, whether "totalitarianism was dead?" Or does it reappear in new ideologies and movements, perhaps even more dangerous because more democratic? Do these newer movements not have the same intellectual roots as Marxism only, on its fall, to follow a different, more subtle path?
It is on this point of the troubling nature of philosophic modernity that McCoy was most perceptive. In his essay, "The Dilemma of Liberalism," he wrote:
Liberalism's primal act of imagination whereby it establishes its essence and existence in the enhanced sense of freedom consequent on the Humean principle that the aberrations in nature are ever so conformable to reality as its apparent intentions issued in autonomy and other-direction. This condition is overcome by the profounder insight that ... by the law that reduces the material and mental spheres to a common denominator the aberrations in nature become the exemplar for freedom in the world of culture and civilization. The way to autonomy then must lie, as Marx most clearly perceived, in destroying all the "intentions" in nature....
Autonomy and authenticity are to be manifested in culture and civilization. Their sign of societal existence is their replacing the intentions of nature that see man as already a formed being whose end or good is given to his intellect to know. His truth consists in the degree to which he conforms his free life to to nature and nature's God's purpose in causing him to be in the first place. This purpose, which is first to know what is, is, likewise, his own good, a good that is given to him by the cause of his being. Religion, family, limited state, science, morals, and law all take their being and meaning from these intentions in nature.
These human realities -- family, limited state, religion, morals, law, and science -- "are the indefectible principles and natural associations," McCoy continued,
and they are not among the facts in accord with which we must live -- in a people's democracy. But they are precisely the things upon which, in the classical tradition of the West, all free governments have depended. And the reason for this is that all of these things are nothing but participations of that intellect that is "separable indeed but [does] not exist apart from matter" in the life of that Prime Intellect upon whose perfect freedom, indeed -- as Aristotle well understood -- "depend the heavens and the world of nature."
The intellect that is "separable from matter but does not exist apart from it" is of course the human intellect. Its freedom is not original with itself, but it is an essential property of its what is, its being.
The human good is, as it were, given to it and given to it as something it could not imagine in its highest reaches. Aristotle said that man does not make man to be man but taking him from nature as already man makes him to be good man. The freedom of man has to do with his goodness, not with his being. That is a freedom of man to be something other than man is neither a liberty nor a glory more exalted than what he is. The claim of modern political theories is that the institutions in which this good is fostered are themselves not presupposed to the real good of man. They must be changed or eliminated because their existence interferes with the ambition of authentic and autonomous man to refashion man free of any divine or traditional claim. This position, thus, must be based on positions that refuse the freedom that comes from the truth of man's being. McCoy saw here that free government depends on the Western tradition that saw the first purpose of philosophy to be that of knowing the given being of man as a limit on its own activities. It is in this sense that Western civilization, the civilization with the universal purpose, as Strauss rightly called it, must directly come under attack if an alternate structure of man, rooted in the denial of any claim to a right order of human things, is to exist.
In a remarkable little essay entitled, "The Purpose of Politics," Josef Pieper has commented on the dangers of the exclusively political, on the view that politics is, contrary to Aristotle, the "highest science." A politics that is based on an unlimited freedom rather than on the truth that makes us free leaves us, Pieper thought, subject to "the deadly emptiness and the endless ennui which bounds the realm of the exclusively practical." This result, Pieper went on to explain, is the result of the destruction of the vita contemplativa, the capacity to account for the "intentions" in nature. In this situation, it is possible to
see new and forceful validity in the old principle: "It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation." For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight, gives meaning to every practical act of life.
Thus both the democratic polity that allows the philosopher to exist, even though it think him a fool, and the best practical polity that knows its own limits and knows that there are things that are not Caesar's have within their structures the means for their own preservation.
But it is out of the democratic polity that the philosophical tyrants arise. The philosophic tyrants are not content merely with their own good but require that the whole of reality be ordained to their own project, a project that is conceived to be the proper understanding of things, particularly human things. When we have come to this point, in conclusion, we realize that C. S. Lewis' word was very perceptive, the "conditioners." We do live among those who presume to deal with only "conditioned human material." Lewis called this simply "post-humanity."
The role of Christian philosophy in politics is, at its briefest, to prevent such a post-human order of things from coming about by demonstrating the truth of right order. The first step is to understand how this post-humanity is coming about. And that understanding, practically speaking, will not happen without revelation, without a clear understanding of the responses that revelation gives to the unanswered philosophic questions, together with a clear understanding of disorder in the human soul. The alternate answers are in place. Samuel Johnson already had it correct in 1770 -- "To find a substitute for violated morality was the leading feature in all perversions of religion." The substitutes are taking over the public world. This is why, even as philosophers, we cannot forget where the Church is. Eo magis Christianus, quo magis philosophus.
3) From Policy Reform & Moral Grounding, Edited by T. William Boxx and Gary Quinlivan (Latrobe, PA.: St. Vincent College Center for Economic and Policy Education, 1995), pp. 1-20. Originally a lecture at this symposium. The crucial mark of a Christian view is that it addresses itself to politics on the supposition that politics has a legitimate area but in practice is not able to account for everything that arises in its own field.
ON HOW REVELATION ADDRESSES ITSELF TO POLITICS
The economic problem is a ... problem which has been solved already: we know how to provide enough and do not require any violent, inhuman, aggressive technologies to do so. There is no economic problem and, in a sense, there never has been. But there is a moral problem, and moral problems ... are not capable of of being solved so that future generations can live without effort.
It will be observed, that Johnson at all times made the just distinction between doctrines contrary to reason, and doctrines above reason.
The New Testament contains a number of perplexing statements that apparently have to do with economics. St. Paul said, for example, that a workman is worthy of his hire, from which we conclude that a workman who does sloppy or dishonest work is morally wrong. Likewise, an employer who does not pay a fair wage is unjust. But we are not told how the market or the company or the government or the worker, for that matter, decides what in truth is a fair price or wage or how to achieve either. Nor are we told how the consumer is related to the worker and to the employer both of whom, along with the government, can conspire against the consumer if they are in selfish collaboration. If revelation does not deal specifically with these latter things, we might wonder, what good is it? What might be the significance of revelation in apparently not deciding all these unsettling questions.?
In one famous parable, on the on the socially inadmissible grounds that the owner can do with his money as he pleases, we see the master of the vineyard paying those who worked only the last hour of the day the same wages as those who labored all day. This parable evidently suggests some powerful difference between justice and charity, for it is the workers, not the master who are chastised. Justice binds us but mercy frees us. Evidently we need both and they are not the same. Demands for justice can corrupt the inspirations to mercy. I have often called justice the most terrible of the virtues because it deals only with relationships, not, as in friendship, with the persons who have the relationships. The owner's wealth in the parable did not come unjustly. Many workers could not find jobs all day. The master of the vineyard took pity on them and gave them something to do, even for a short time. In justice, he could have left the excess laborers at the hiring hall. The hired workers who were paid the same amount for an hour as those who worked ten surely had to wonder about this. No union would stand for such an arrangement.
However, such is human nature, those who were paid a just wage for a full day's work from morning subsequently complained about those who were given the same amount of wages without putting in the same amount work. Since we are not saved in justice, we can be saved at any time in mercy. The last will be first. Doesn't God seem to be treating the world unfairly when He saves some at the last hour who have done everything wrong but finally repented? In the order of salvation, how much we do is not the most salient factor. Some do much more, some considerably less, yet all receive the same reward, though the Father's house has many mansions. Some angels differ from others in glory.. The problems of the world evidently are not adequately or fully met with what we know about justice and order. Saint Thomas in a famous passage remarked that the world is created in mercy, not justice. To the pure humanist, perhaps no more scandalous passage exists in the Angelic Doctor's remarkable works.
And on either side of Christ, we find two thieves, one of whom remarked that both were being punished justly, but Christ, what evil had he done? Christ turned only to one of the thieves to tell him that he would be with Him in paradise. Ought Christ better to have saved both or none, why this discrimination since both were guilty? Was His mercy unequal and did it violate justice and equality, those contemporary virtues that seem to have absorbed and judged all the others? Why is justice such a harsh virtue, something that even the ancient writers understood with their doctrine of epichia? Why is the modern slogan "faith and justice" and not "faith, liberty, and justice" or even more, "faith, hope, and charity"? Does it not seem odd that the Pope in Centesimus Annus would say that we cannot even solve our social problems without the Gospel, as if to imply that somehow even the natural virtues are related to the prior purpose of revelation?
The older brother of the prodigal son, to recall another related parable, labored all his days for his father but was never given so much as a kid with which to party with his friends. The other son blew all his inheritance on riotous living but was still greeted with celebration by his father. Did not the older brother have a legitimate gripe? Was the father being unfair, that favorite word of those who think the world made only in justice? Was the older brother wrong or foolish in working hard for his father all his days? Should he not have joined his brother and wasted his substance so that his father would welcome him too? Evidently not. But there were ways to repair our faults and sins that did not appear to follow the laws of justice. Indeed, it is doubtful that justice by itself can repair the violations of justice. The point was not, then, that the brothers, to win their father's love, should have both gone off to a far country carousing and wasting their inheritances. But, along with the older brother, we can be tempted to think or do wrong even when we are doing right, especially when we think that only justice rules our relationships within our families or polities or God.
St. Paul also said that he who does not work, neither let him eat, clearly a hard saying in these days of universal compassion and welfare economics. St. Paul at one point, I believe, made tents to support himself. St. Paul was like Smith-Barney; he believed in making money the old-fashioned way, by earning it. Generosity is not supposed to substitute for personal effort and can even destroy it. Something is wrong with the pure free-loader, wrong with his outlook on the world, his view that something is his simply because he thinks he needs it. The world is not better off if everybody is given everything with no creative input on the part of each one. This seemingly ideal situation was, after all, the original condition of man in the Garden of Eden and we know what happened there. More than one flourishing economic sector has been destroyed by unconditional gifts from private, national, or international sources. Even when grace builds on nature, it is designed to complete the intrinsic purpose of nature, not to eradicate it. The poor generally want and are expected to have some title for their incomes that comes from their own dignity, from themselves. This system of mutual contribution is what Catholic social thought has traditionally called "subsidiarity".
The poor, we are told, will be always with us. As St. Paul said in Galatians, all Peter, John, and James asked Paul and Baranabas to do at their famous conference in Jerusalem was "that they should keep the poor in mind", something they were most disposed to do. But what exactly does it mean to "keep the poor in mind"? Can we help the poor if we have erroneous or silly ideas about wealth production and distribution, about work and government? St. James said that we were not supposed to go about telling the poor to be blessed and good without actually doing something for them. Is just anything we do, however, all right or enough? Does keeping "the poor in mind" also have something to do with the ideas, intentions, virtues, and methods whereby wealth is produced? The "poor" in fact have been in modern thought the primary justification for the expansion of the absolute state and for totalitarian theories. Their "cause", if I might put it that way, has become one of the primary substitutes for God in the modern world, this in a world wherein we are told by revelation to be "mindful of the poor."
Mary was praised for breaking an expensive alabaster vase to pour oil on Christ's feet, something that seemed to Judas, but not to Christ, to be a waste. The world would not be better off if there were no market for fine perfumes. If we only produced necessities, we would probably not even produce necessities, a theme that recalls the Second Book of Plato's Republic. Perhaps wealth and poverty were not in absolute opposition to one another. Perhaps the only way we could help the poor was to produce wealth which was distributed inequitably but still in a world where all received more.. Moreover, if the poor will always be with us, this truth must mean that the complete elimination of poverty, at least in some comparative sense, is not possible and therefore the claim to do so is quite dangerous. On the other hand, in the beginning, all were poor, so that one of the greatest of human resources is how not to be poor. How to produce wealth, without which knowledge all will simply remain poor, is not something directly taught in revelation but was left for us to discover by ourselves.
Envy is a vice of both the rich and the poor. No greater contempt of the poor can be shown than to presume that they do not sin against each other or to believe that all their sins are caused by their material wants. Many a poor family and many a poor nation do not think that they must steal or lie or kill just because they are poor. This is one of the great slanders of our time, without denying Aristotle's observation that we need a certain among of material goods to be virtuous. No doubt envy is a much more serious moral disorder than greed, which is itself a serious disorder.
Aristotle indeed had already located the primary causes of civil disorders in excesses of greed and envy, that is, in spiritual not material things. The fact that envy is rarely preached about or examined as a moral and theological problem, one related to the reasons for the failure of economic well being, is a telling indictment on the shallowness of our popular religious and moral social theories. This view about the poor being always with us seems to suggest that utopias are in fact dangerous if they propose precisely to eliminate poverty completely by their schema, by their reform formulae. Looking back on the now-ending Twentieth Century, we can agree with Paul Johnson in Modern Times that the real scourges of this era are rooted precisely in those philosopher-politicians who, motivated by envy and greed or their failure to discover any truly transcendent good, have sought to eliminate poverty by other than spiritual methods, by reforming society before reforming man after the manner of philosophical or revelational guidance. The real problem of contemporary democratic theory is whether it has not itself accepted these dubious theories as operative principles in the public order.
We live today ironically in a world in which the poorest of the rich societies are infinitely richer than the richest in other societies, both ancient and modern. And the grand projects to make every poor man rich ought not to end up by making every man, rich and poor, to be poorer. There is no greater imaginary moral disorder than a theory of what I call "gapism" or distributionism that conceives the world as a finite pie. In such an image, the reason the rich are rich is because the poor are poor; the rich are therefore unjust by definition because the only place they could have acquired their wealth was to take it unjustly from someone else. Nothing causes more useless and dangerous envy than this theory uncritically lodged in the minds of otherwise good men, very often religious men, who have never really thought about the conditions of wealth production and distribution. No one denies, of course, that a certain amount of injustice does go on in this world, but the primary sign of this injustice is not the fact that some have more and others less.
Only monks, it seems, are equally poor and this by rule. This is why they are vowed to live unlike other men, not because wealth is evil but because they themselves witness to what is not bought by riches. Yet these same monks built abbeys and libraries and magnificent churches. Some later economists saw in this unexpected phenomenon of the vow of poverty producing great wealth the paradox that wealth comes initially from saving, from accumulating and not spending everything we garner. Moreover, a large portion of the tourist industry of the modern world derives from how these accumulated savings were ultimately spent on building beautiful buildings and artifacts. What wealth made, at its best, was worth seeing. If you can imagine Rome, for instance, without its beautiful and impressive buildings, churches, paintings, music, roads, arches, and yes spaghetti, all in the name of austerity, you can imagine a place to which few people would go to visit.
Wealthy nations somehow seem to be those countries that have learned to save but only if they also invent and experiment and know about the world market. It is almost impossible to keep unproductive wealth except by the methods of the absolute state. "He who loses his life will save it" has also turned out to be a good principle of economic productivity. Without risk, without trying what has never been tried before, without improving what we have, what we have soon disappears. Needless to say, we need to decide not merely what we can have, but what we want. As E. F. Schumacher said in the passage I cited in the beginning, we know how to solve the problem of poverty, what we do not know so easily is how to solve the problem of virtue. That is to say, lack of virtue and of generosity is related to a lack of wealth or to a failure to use it properly.
Interestingly, the word for the old Hebrew or Attic coin, the talent, has come to mean not so much money as the brains with which to produce wealth or the ability to learn about how to make things. John Paul II makes this very clear in Centesimus Annus that the source of wealth is not material but spiritual, a notion that has been common in economic circles for some time. Countries with enormous physical resources are often very poor, while those with hardly anything can be very rich if they have both talent and certain virtues. The failure to understand the significance of this truth is what lies behind almost all of the failures of modern religious and social thought to understand the real problems of the poor in the modern world. The ultimate source of wealth is not goods or property or things, but the human mind.
But the human mind, subject as it is to the human will, is also the primary arena of order and disorder. Talents not only can be buried, but they also can be used for positively harmful purposes. The most dangerous criminal, the most dangerous politician is the intelligent one motivated by zeal and directed by wrong ideas, not simply the ones seeking solely their own ends or interests. The brains of the policeman, the criminal, the lawyer, and the professor, for that matter, can be measured with the same IQ. The talent buried in the ground is much less harmful than the ten talents employed to gain power or prestige for immoral or unjust purposes.
A Christian forgets at his peril that the origin of evil, to recall the account in Genesis of the Garden, does not arise from man's lack of material goods. The Fall occurred to first parents who had, as it were, everything, so it is not correct or possible to locate the ultimate origin of evil in something lacking, even though evil, when it occurs, is what is lacking in a good being or action. Genesis, it strikes me is most perceptive. The Fall occurred when men sought to be like gods in a world in which everything was given to them, given to them evidently not in justice but in generosity and kindness.
The Fallen Angel was, by all counts, among the most intelligent of the angels. This is why St. Paul told us soberly that our struggles are not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, to warn us that the cause of human disorder is not in things but in the spirit. We cannot study social history without studying moral history and we cannot study moral history without studying intellectual history, including particularly salvation history. The effort to understand ourselves apart from the understanding of ourselves found in revelation is itself futile. The "whole truth about man," as the Holy Father calls is, is not known only by human knowledge, especially by a human knowledge that systematically excludes from the consideration of itself what has been taught in revelation. If anyone doubts this truth, he might try reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy, or Paul Johnson's Intellectuals or E. Michael Jones Degenerate Moderns, or better still, St. Augustine's Confessions and his City of God.
The servant, preferring to keep his coins unproductively rather than putting them in a much more profitable entrepreneurship, buried his talent rather than risk the disfavor of a just Lord. This precisely "unprofitable" servant who was admonished at least to gain some interest from the bankers, was condemned, not praised. Even a low rate of commercial interest was better than collecting nothing, and this parable was recounted in a world that thought usury in the strict sense was a sin. The point of this parable of the unprofitable servant, to be sure, was not primarily a dissertation on economics. Rather it was a discussion of the way that God dealt with us. What is characteristic of Christianity, something inherited from the account in Genesis of the relation of man to nature, is that we are not "creators" of wealth ex nihilo, from nothing, but we are able to do things with what has been given to us for the purposes for which we are created.
Why the physical world does not achieve its own purpose without man has much directly to do with why man does not define his own end, which is not simply a contract with the world for its improvement nor even something due directly to his nature. Schumacher cites the marvelous medieval Latin aphorism, "Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est." This does not mean that man will become something other than man, a Nietzschean superman, but that he himself, not by his own but by a divine design, is slated to be himself in a more complete manner than his own reality would anticipate or even imagine. Man will not demonstrate his worthiness to be related to the inner life of God by first himself, by his own powers organizing the world apart from God. Rather he will first order himself to God after the outlines suggested or commanded to him by God Himself. In following these new laws, he will be able to understand how it is that the world can achieve its end and how his own end is higher in each single instance of a human life than the whole material world itself. Much of human intellectual life is a refusal to accept this priority and ultimately, I think; this priority of purpose, end, and means is the primary source of the opposition to the Church today insofar as that Church explains itself after its own nature, as it does, say, in John Paul II's General Catechism.
To mix up the priorities is not merely a technical mistake but a moral and theological one. The proper use of our talents is not apart from the primary mission we have to know and serve God, and this in the order of His guidance and not of our own preferences or whims. The perplexities and directives of revelation about how and why to observe the commandments, not forgetting to include the new commandment which Christ has given us, are, when worked out, some of the main reasons why we can understand the real nature of world and of ourselves. They incite us to discover the reasons why we can and should know about nature and its development. In order for us to deal scientifically with the world, we must first believe that the world can be known in some sense, that it is not an illusion, that it has a relatively stable order that did not come directly from man's own mind. These are theological propositions derived from the Old and New Testaments, without which nothing much would be done in the world.
The disorders in the physical world or in the economic world are the results, not the causes, of man's own personal relationships to God and neighbor. If we notice carefully the implications of John Paul II's insistent teaching on what is called "social sin", it is remarkable how the Holy Father consistently locates any social sin in prior personal sins, a doctrine wholly in line with Aristotle and St. Thomas and largely in opposition to modern relativist ethical and political theory. Disordered regimes, as both Plato and Aristotle rightly taught us, are the results of disordered souls. This is a very ancient doctrine, confirmed again and again in revelation, but it is also a very necessary doctrine, hardly heard in the schools for a quarter century.
Moreover, although we are judged by whether we give a cup of water to someone who needs it, nowhere do we read in the New Testament about how to develop a water purifying system or an aqueducts like the Romans did, things that are said to have saved more people's health than almost anything else in medical history. Water was changed to wine at Cana. Water was used by John to baptize Christ. The Jewish law forbad pork in part it seems because of its dangers to health. But these sacred prohibitions and uses are not direct contributions to the problem of pure water throughout the world, a problem that still exists but whose solution we surely know in great detail. We are, to be sure, to pay particular attention to the poor and needy. But we find in Scripture no discussion about whether generous welfare programs run by the state help or destroy poor families and individuals or reduce solvent ones to penury, as the evidence of experience seems to indicate that they do.
Thus the very incompleteness of the New Testament in particularly social and political matters, let alone economic ones, is, I think, to be looked upon as God's compliment to the goodness of human nature in so far as it was uncorrupted by The Fall -- itself incidently one of the most fundamental doctrines having to do with the public order. There is no more socially devastating teaching than that which says that man is intrinsically good, that there is nothing disordered in his soul, that therefore evil lies outside of his personal life whether he be rich or poor or in between, that he can be made good by certain structural changes in economic and politics..
The New Testament also has a couple of important things to say about the state, but not many. The New Testament is not a book of economic or political theory, or if it is, it is a very poor one. Revelation evidently was initially intended to instruct men on what they could not know by themselves, not what they could. Samuel Johnson's remark about knowing things against reason and things above reason is to the point. The principle of contradiction as an intellectual tool ought to enable us pretty much by ourselves to know the things against reason. But our reason needs to be instructed by a higher reason for those things we want to know above our reason, about the inner life of God and whether God, made man, has dwelt amongst us.
The fact that we can derive certain quite wise and valuable insights in both politics and economics from the Old or New Testament serves as a kind of confirmatory hint that what they contain is not against but within the proper order of things, of the whole, of what is not against reason and of what is above it. Revelation and good sense are somehow related, even when revelation takes the most unexpected turns or recommends the most improbable things, like loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us, without at the same time naively releasing all the most hardened criminals from prisons to prey upon an unsuspecting populace.
Though St. Paul wrote a short letter to a slaveholder, revelation was not directly concerned about freeing the slaves in some political sense or about inventing aid programs for the poor or describing the proper structures to regimes. He wrote about the one thing necessary. We were to seek first the Kingdom of God, but not to try to establish it by our own efforts. Christ refused the temptation to turn stones into bread either as a sign of His power or as a sign of His ability to help the hungry. The Kingdom of God was not some sort of model political order in this life. We can never read enough of St. Augustine on this score.
Indeed, a long series of philosophers have accused Christianity in particular of a kind of incivism for its concentration on things said to be more important than economics or politics, an accusation, when sorted out, that implies that politics are more important than eternal life. The two may not be in conflict with each other, but them again they can be. Both Aristotle and Plato understood something of this priority of the things of God, which is no doubt why we can trust them in many things of this world in ways that we cannot trust more modern thinkers who confuse God with the world, or confuse the race of men in the world with God.
The moral and religious efforts devoted to virtue, to sacrament, to worship were said to deflect men from giving their full attention to certain worthy political and economic enterprises. St. Augustine, on being confronted with this charge, simply pointed out that Christians, because of their beliefs and practices made better soldiers and citizens than others. The vow of poverty seemed to deny the goodness of the efforts to produce things, but in practice it seemed to have been at the origins of modern accumulations of wealth and capital. Christ implied that man did not live by bread alone, that we should consequently seek first the Kingdom of God, which was not a political regime, and all these other things would be given to us.
This priority seems to imply, as I have said, that disorder of soul will lead to disorder of economics and polity, so that if we do not get the first relationship to God correct, well never get the latter in proper order. Christ's admonitions also seem to suggest that the important things of life can be achieved even if we do not live in well appointed political or economic conditions. Apparently, the greatest of saints can live in terrible regimes, even in terrible prisons and labor camps all their lives and reach the highest sanctity. Often it seems this is the way that the new law is best and most forcefully made known throughout the world. Likewise, those who live in the most affluent and developed society from some technical point of view can in fact choose lives of the worst moral and physical degradation.
The two most famous passages in the New Testament about politics are those from St. Matthew about rendering to God the things that are God's and to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and from St. Paul where he tells us to obey the Emperor who bears the sword to correct our wrong-doings. When they are forbidden to preach the Good News by the Jewish authorities, in a third pertinent passage, John and Paul ask in Acts whether they should obey God or man? They leave no doubt which is to be more important in case of conflict. Thus, there were limits to what the state might command even when it was rendering to Caesar. The New Testament, a revelational document, states clearly that the state is normal, natural, to be expected. It says in its own way what Aristotle said when he emphasized that may is by nature and political and social animal.
Christ at His trial even tells Pilate, who would be the equivalent of some governor of a small state, that he would have no authority over Christ were it not given to him by His Father. The fact that the state could and did kill Christ did not mean either that it acted justly or that what Christ taught was not true. If Pilate has some authority, obviously he did not get it from the Old or New Testament. Nor did he concoct it from his own imagination. Cicero had already provided a pretty decent explication of the legitimacy of the state to the Roman mind. Caesar is already in operation by the time Christ is born. In fact, He is born where He is born because of an Edict of Caesar Augustus. He is born when Caesar has already conquered Palestine. Yet, Christ never discusses, as Cicero did, whether a republic or an empire were a better form of regime. Even less does Christ tell Pilate that he is a usurper, but He acknowledges that he has some limited authority over Him.
Christ does not give Pilate a lecture on the evils of capital punishment or on civil revolution, though He does seem to accept an organization with authority to deal with certain difficult and conflicting problems over the ages. Many have subsequently faulted Christ for this failure suddenly to correct the civil and economic woes of the world, as if this is what He should have been occupying Himself with. If He had a perfect economic and political program, such people imply, they would surely believe. But subsequent experience has been long enough to make us doubt this proposition. Both good men and evil men can draw good or evil out of good. This is one of the main political lessons of Christ's Crucifixion at the hands of what was perhaps the best state in the ancient world. Others have insisted that this-worldly institutions were not what Christ was about, even though doing what He advised could not help but redound to the good of the civil and economic orders..
One of the apostles was a tax collector. Christ was asked about the power to tax, itself a sign, if anything is, of the power and legitimacy of the state. To answer the question He does not denounce the taxing powers of the state, nor does He suggest a flat tax instead of an income tax. The Romans never did in fact figure out a good way to collect taxes, one of their few organizational weaknesses. Rather, Christ asked for a coin and inquired of a hostile audience, "whose head was found on it?" The answer was Caesar's. So Christ said to his questioners, not that Caesar had no authority, nor that Caesar was an illegitimate occupant of Palestine, nor that He preferred a sales tax, but that Caesar did have authority. That is to say, the New Testament recognizes that political authority is itself legitimate.
The New Testament thus presupposes that there is a legitimate argument for political authority that is not derived from revelation. Might we say that it presupposes Aristotle and Cicero, the philosophers? Revelation is not contrary to reason but insists we know what we can find out from our own sources before we will recognize the validity of what it presents above reason. However, just because Caesar has legitimate taxing power does not itself determine the rate or type of taxation that is best. Presumably, there can be unjust taxes in any civil order. Just because the state has some power does not mean that it has absolute power.
Again we are left with the impression that Christ was not particularly concerned with whether Roman taxing policies were within due proportion or were always used for legitimate purposes. Christ seemed to like members of the Roman legion that occupied Palestine, something no doubt supported by taxes. We know from ancient taxing policies, however, that there was much wrong with the ways taxes were collected. We know too from the famous "bread and circuses", that the use of the monies collected often by force and corruption from the Empire were used for to support in leisure a corrupt populace, for base and immoral purposes, even for persecuting Christians.
A Christian about to be tossed to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, presumably, was not primarily worried about whether Roman taxing powers were being legitimately used or collected in the business of importing lions to Italy. Paul and Peter, moreover, were evidently martyred under the Emperor Nero, a none too pious man, to whom this same St. Paul told the Romans to be obedient. We do not reasonably conclude from that admonition that everything Nero did was commendable. We do not conclude that St. Paul, contrary to Plato and Aristotle, was eulogizing tyranny as the best form of rule. But if he was not, it must follow that we have some other source of knowledge about political and economic things than what we find in revelation, again without denying that what we find in revelation has implications even for political rule and economic order.
The commandments that the New Testament reaffirms from the Mosaic Law are stated generally in a negative fashion. We are told not to do certain things, ever. "Thou shalt not." John Paul II has made a brilliant statement of the meaning and reason for this approach in his Veritatis Splendor, almost the only modern public document that speaks directly of truth, particularly to moral truth. Many critics over the centuries maintain that this classical statement found in the Commandments is too negative. On the other hand, the New Testament does tell us to love one another, to do good to those who hate us. Both negative and positive commands are put before us. Why so? If we examine carefully the things we are commanded not to do, both in the order of acts and in the order of thought and willing -- we are not to do or covet doing -- we find a list of things that are so basic to human well being that their violation, even once, bears an intrinsic relationship to human worth and dignity.
Thus, killing, stealing, lying, coveting, committing adultery strike at the very heart not only of society but of the inner life of the human person who commits the sin and of those who suffer it. Chesterton as usual put it best:
The silliest sort of progressive complains of negative morality, and compares it unfavourably with positive morality. The silliest sort of conservative complains of destructive reform and compares it unfavourably with constructive reform. Both the progressive and the conservative entirely neglect to consider the very meaning of the words "yes" and "no". To give the answer "yes" to one question is to imply the answer "no" to another question; and to desire the construction of something is to desire the destruction of whatever prevents its construction. This is particularly plain in the fuss about "negative morality", or what may be described as the campaign against the Ten Commandments. The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but ... of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted and only a few things are forbidden... It is better to tell a man not to steal than to try to tell him the thousand things that he can enjoy without stealing; especially as he can generally be pretty well trusted to enjoy them.
It is precisely because we do not do these forbidden things that, generally, we will be able to do the hundreds of positive things.
The human race is told to go forth and multiply and have dominion over the earth, to found cities and countries and to learn of what is. That is, it is told of the myriads of things that are there for it to accomplish in every life, but at the same time revelation contains a warning about those things that are most likely, in any given instant, to overturn inner and external integrity, to set man at odds with woman, to set mother against mother-in-law, and brother against brother. The positive things there to be done are not listed, only the negative ones that would undermine the possibility of doing rightly any thing proceeding from our natural faculties responding to grace. Indeed, as St. Thomas pointed out, those things that Christ added in the New Testament, on examination, enable us better to do those things that needed most to be done. Ironically, it is only by adding to what we know from reason or the Old Testament that the real earthly goals of mankind might, but need not, be accomplished. It is true that human beings have something to do on this earth during the time they live there. But it is also true that God does not command in detail the definite projects and systems that lie before the human race.
How is it that we go about helping others, as we are told to do and as we generally want to do? We immediately notice that we can have good intentions but that what we do to help does not always work. We have all met people who know well how to work or help others but who choose not to do so. There is somehow a difference between desire and performance. We even sometimes need to be protected from the good intentions of others. Charlie Brown is on the mound winding up. Evidently the batter hits a pop fly near the pitcher's mound. Charlie yells, "I got it! It's all mine!" But Charlie is a rational animal. As he circles looking up in the air for the fly, we hear him arguing with himself: "If I catch this ball, we'll win our first game of the season."
This rare event evidently is desirable. But then Charlie shows some doubt about his own abilities, so he prays to God, "Please let me catch it! Please let me be the hero! Please let me catch it! Please!" Charlie wants to be a hero, but doubts his own capacity so he calls on divine aid which usually aids Charlie in ways he does not desire. So he reasons further, knowing about the Fall and undeserved merit, "On the other hand," he says to himself still getting under the pop fly, "do I think I deserve to be the hero?" He would not want to be an undeserving hero to whom God has given the power to catch the ball.
Next, Charlie shows some concern for his neighbor: "The kid who hit it doesn't want to be the goat." Charlie's heroism is some batter's humiliation. But since baseball of its very nature requires some heros and some goats, he reasons further, "Is a baseball game really this important? Lots of kids all over the world never even heard of baseball." Charlie echoes the mothers who used to tell their children to eat their suppers because kids in China are starving. He brings in the poverty and deprivation problem: "Lots of kids don't get to play at all, or have a place to sleep, or...." At this crucial point, of course, the ball hits his glove and bounces to the ground before an astounded Charlie. The catcher rushes up to ask, "Charlie Brown how could you miss such an easy pop fly?" To which query Charlie replies, "I prayed myself out of it."
Why, in conclusion, do I cite Charlie Brown in this context of revelation, politics, and economics? It is to remind us that, like baseball, our performance in life is itself related to our ideas and our motives, to what we hold valuable, to how we understand the world and our place in it. Charlie's conflicting desires, his indecision between personal glory, the worth of the game, and the concern for the other batter make it impossible for him to perform even the most simple of pitching tasks, namely, to catch a pop fly.
Revelation addresses itself to reason, to politics by clarifying what it is that we exist for, what the world is about, what is our end and our happiness. We will not get the world right if we get ourselves wrong. Revelation, as I have suggested, does not directly teach us about tax policy, about the form of regimes, or about how to produce pure water and abundant food. But it does indicate the immense importance of each human being, of the power and scope of human intellect and enterprise, of the meaning of the world and its relation to our own destinies. We can be free to do the myriads of delightfully positive things because we are, by observing the commandments, liberated from those acts that destroy any real possibility of our doing what ought to be done.
As Chesterton said, "it is better to tell a man not to steal than to tell him of the thousands of things he can do without stealing." In short, the poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The only way anyone can reach that abundance in which human life best flourishes is that everyone learn, probably at different rates, how to become richer. In short, we must know what things are against reason and what are above it, we must know that the economic problems are solved but that the moral problems of choosing to live rightly and virtually reappear in each life and in each era and constitute the real drama of mankind. These are the things that we can do that we will be judged upon in our search for that Kingdom to which we are destined, not of this world, but still addressed to those of us in this world.
Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est. No doubt this attention to supernatural truth is, at first sight, the least likely way in which we should expect revelation effectively to address itself to politics or economics. Ironically, in the end, since other ways have not in fact worked, it might just be the most fruitful way we can proceed even in solving our own problems.
4) From Maritain and the Jews, Edited by Robert Royal (Notre Dame: American Maritain Society \University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), pp. 51-71. Since the relation between Jews and Christians is itself a theoretical and practical issue, it seems worthwhile to include this essay in this section under Christian Political Philosophy.
THE MYSTERY OF "THE MYSTERY OF ISRAEL"
In a certain, perhaps unfortunate sense, Catholics thinking about Jews or Jews thinking about Catholics require a particular tact and considerateness. It has almost come to the point where we are so ecumenical and conscientious that we no longer speak of anything serious to one another. Yet the very spirit of religious devotion and intellectual honesty presume that, at some level, we can speak of how we understand ultimate things.
The story is told of a certain clergyman -- presumably he could have been interchangeably a priest, a minister, or a rabbi -- who was known by a few of his congregation to enjoy Cherry Brandy. One of the members of the congregation, with not a little pious maliciousness, offered to present the clergyman with a bottle of the said Cherry Brandy on the condition that the gift be fully acknowledged in the next Church Bulletin. Naturally, the shrewd clergyman accepted the Cherry Brandy. Sure enough, the next time the congregation met, the following item was found in the church announcements: "The Pastor thanks Mr. McTavish for his gift of fruit and especially for the spirit in which it was offered."
If I might continue this rather strained analogy, the spirit in which these remarks are offered presumes that we can talk of serious things both because others like Maritain have talked of them and because they concern the deepest meanings of human existence. No one can be blamed too much for taking his own philosophy or religion seriously. No one can be unaware that many divergent views exist. No one can doubt that the truth is, in the end, one and we all ought to seek it.
Walker Percy, I believe, once asked the provocative question, "Why are there no Hittites in New York City?" The import of his question was not some nostalgia for the lost Hittites, but rather the curious fact that Jews are still quite visible on the Sidewalks of New York and Hittites quite lacking. That is to say, why did not the Jews disappear like the Hittites and other ancient peoples? Is it merely luck or an odd sort of historic accident? Does it perhaps have something to do with the meaning of history itself?
In an essay published just after he died, Percy further remarked that two "signs (exist) in the post-modern age that cannot be encompassed by theory." The first sign concerns the nature of the self. "Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?" -- so Percy had amusingly wondered to this first point in his Lost in the Cosmos. The myriads of diverging theories about the self are almost more scientifically perplexing than the self as such.
The second sign of post-modern science's inability to explain all things neatly, Percy maintained, is the very existence of "the Jews." "The Jews are a stumbling block to theory," Percy affirmed.
They cannot be subsumed under any social or political theory.... The great paradox of the Western World is that even though it was in the Judeo-Christian West that modern science arose and flourished, it is Judeo-Christianity which the present-day scientific set finds the most offensive among the world's religions.
Percy thought that the reason why the existence of the Jews was particularly offensive and enigmatic to science was because the Jews in their history are unique, not a mere instance of a "theory," as other peoples presumably are.
"Judaism is particularly offensive," Percy surmised, "because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other. Christianity is doubly offensive because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, he and no other." Scientifically, God should have become a lot of men, or better, all men, not just one unique man. If more is at work in the world than "science," that is, if there is a divine will at the origin of nature, then it must mean that science, whatever its worth, cannot by itself account for the ultimate or complete explanation of all the singular events in time.
Paul Johnson's widely-read book, A History of the Jews, concluded in a not dissimilar fashion to that of Percy:
That Jews should over the millennia attract such unparalleled, indeed inexplicable, hatred would be regrettable but only to be expected (by believing Jews looking back on their own history). And above all, that the Jews should still survive, when all the other ancient people were transmuted or vanished into the oubliettes of history, was wholly predictable. How could it be otherwise? Providence decreed it and the Jews obeyed. The historian may say: there is no such thing as providence. Possibly not. But human confidence in such an historical dynamic, if it is strong and tenacious enough, is a force in itself, which pushes on the hinge of events and moves them. The Jews believed that they were a special people with such unanimity and passion, and over so long a span, that they became one.
Johnson is willing to grant that there may be both a providential reason for the survival of the Jews and a natural one, itself based on at least a belief in providence. In any case, whether the Jews exist by terms of providence or by accident, their unique existence contains, on any scientific grounds of social science, an element of improbability, of perplexity, yes, of mystery.
Irving Kristol, in a recent essay on "The Future of American Jewry," noted, furthermore, the intellectual collapse of the widely held quasi-religion or ideology of "secular humanism." Ironically, Kristol observed, many modern Jews and Christians have implicitly based their own social, if not theoretical, attitudes on such an ideology and not on their own religious beliefs. What may take the place of a dying secular humanism, Kristol thought, could well be a more orthodox Jewry or Christianity. But it may also and more likely be a revived "paganism," the signs of which are so prevalent in many brands of ecology, feminism, and naturalism.
Kristol wrote to this issue:
The real danger (to American Jews) is not from a revived Christianity, which American Jews (if they are sensible) can cope with, but from an upsurge of anti-biblical barbarism that will challenge Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization altogether. The passing of secular humanism is already pointing to such a "shaking of the foundations." American Jews, alert to Christian anti-Semitism, are in danger of forgetting that it was the pagans -- the Babylonians and the Romans -- who destroyed the temples and twice imposed exile on the Jewish people.
One might add, I suppose, following Ezra 6 in biblical times, that it was Cyrus and Darius, likewise pagans, who brought the Hebrews back to the Holy Land and helped build their temple. And Britain, France, and the United States did have something with the present "homeland."
Jews in America, however, Kristol observed, do not so easily see that America is a "home" to them. Jews who immigrated to Israel, however, do feel that they are "at home" there. "They do not doubt that they are where they ought to be, that the 'immigration' experience is a narrative that comes to a proper -- perhaps a predestined -- ending." No one can forget that in the Bible the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans were in some sense instruments of providence. What possible natural reason could there be, moreover, why the territory of Israel could be a "home" to anyone, especially as at its origins it was somehow seized from the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Canaanites, and other people who once occupied this same land before and since?
One of the most insightful discussions of this persistent destiny or "mystery" of Israel's history and survival, as both Percy and Johnson described it, was that of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. The fact that he lived during the Nazi era and that his wife, Raïssa, was Jewish made Maritain no doubt particularly attentive to the meaning of the Jewish experience. Maritain's writings on the general topic of Israel's meaning, which are frank and insightful, have been noteworthy.
Yet, Maritain had his own Christian grounds for this consideration of Jewish experience. If Israel is a mystery to itself, it is perhaps an even deeper mystery to Christians. If the Jewish experience signifies nothing, the meaning of Christianity is nothing. As Walker Percy had intimated, if it is unscientific to think that God could choose a tribe, it is even more unscientific to think that His Son could become incarnate as a member of this same tribe. The Jew could still be a Jew if somehow Christianity were proved to be false. But if Judaism were proved false, Christianity would collapse with it. On the other hand, if Christianity is true, Judaism is true in so far as it is explained and completed in Christianity.
A veil has now fallen over the hearts of the Jews, but it is not forever; the day will come when it will be taken away. For God's promises are without repentance. Throughout all the vicissitudes of its exile and of worldly history, Israel remains ever the people of God -- stricken, but ever beloved because of its fathers.
No Jew will read these lines as optimistically as a Christian will, yet they are optimistic. They serve to remind us that the mystery of Israel is both a Christian mystery and a key mystery in the broader history of the world itself.
What is of interest here, in particular, is the Christian "reading" of the persistence of Israel. This reading may sound improbable to the Jew or impossible to the philosopher. To the Christian, Israel is "mysterious" because God's promises are "without repentance." The fact that throughout the changes of history and exile Israel remains reveals not Israel, but the paths of God. And these paths are closed to scientific history on its own grounds, though not to sacred history, in which God can choose small tribes and send into the world from this very tribe an utterly unique man, "light from light."
In Ransoming the Time, where he went more fully into this question, Jacques Maritain explained that, in France in 1937, he wrote an essay entitled "The Mystery of Israel." Though he had noted at the time "certain racist publications," they were of a "very low quality." They "dishonoured the French press." The anti-Jewish legislation stemming later from the Vichy government, Maritain observed, "seemed impossible." These laws were "treason against the French spirit." "The vast majority of the French people were nauseated by anti-Semitic trends." The occasion for Maritain's reflections on Israel, consequently, was the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era and by extension the transcendent meaning of anti-Semitism as such.
In one sense, however, it is unfortunate to approach the question of "the Mystery of Israel" from the angle of anti-Semitism, however much that might indeed be pertinent to the issue. Israel -- and here I do not mean the State of Israel -- would be a mystery even if there were no anti-Semitism whatsoever. Anti-Semitism almost seems to serve to keep forever before our minds, lest we should forget it, precisely "Semitism," that is, the meaning of Israel.
Nevertheless, as Maritain suggested, it is quite proper and legitimate to approach the question of Israel from the point of view of a Christian philosopher. "We must never despair of intelligence and the healing power of its dispassionate attempt toward understanding," Maritain continued soberly. The Christian philosopher retains a certain dogged insistence on reason even before issues that have torn mankind apart in hatred and strife for ages. Grace does build on nature.
This appeal to intelligence, however, was first an effort to establish grounds common to Jews and Christians, to all men capable of recognizing a legitimate question to which they could address themselves. Notwithstanding this philosophical basis, Maritain explained more directly that,
If these pages are seen by Jewish readers, I hope they will agree that as a Christian I could only try from a Christian perspective to understand the history of their people.... I am perfectly aware that before agreeing with the statements proposed in my essay, it is necessary to admit, as a prerequisite, the whole Christian outlook; therefore it would be inconsistent to hope for any agreement from a reader who does not place himself in this perspective. I do not intend to try to convince such a reader, but, for the sake of mutual understanding, I think it would perhaps be interesting for him to know how a Christian philosopher considers this question.
Maritain's approach was thus philosophical, yet not oblivious to issues that arose from theological sources. Convincing was one thing; understanding another. Maritain was unwilling to hold that nothing could be said of these issues simply because someone might not understand his purpose in stating them. The essence of what concerned him, however, was precisely the "Christian perspective" on understanding the history of Israel. It was not prejudice, nor bias, nor arrogance to speak of this understanding.
We live in a world in which two remarkable things have happened, apart from the demise of marxism. Marxism itself had, no doubt, considerable Jewish and Christian intellectual origins. Moreover, its recent fate has been considered by many Christians, at least -- I am thinking of something like Fatima -- to be in the hands of God in a particular way. The first of these changes is the growing recognition that what is called modern science in the good sense, science not "scientism," does have origins in Jewish and Christian theology, in the belief in valid secondary causes, in the belief in order itself, in the belief that the universe has a definite, finite origin.
The second of these changes is that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism stand interrelated to one another in a way that requires not merely "tolerance" but Maritain's "dispassionate understanding." What lies behind their long standing antagonism to each other, an antagonism that seems to be manifested on the news every night? Is it just a question of economics and politics, or of prejudice and bad will? Or is there something more fundamental at work here, something having to do with their respective relationship to God, of which economics, politics, and culture are mere external manifestations?
Christians, Jews, and Muslims (and remembering Northern Ireland, we should add Protestants and Catholics) have been engaged in verbal, civic, and military hostilities throughout the modern era, indeed throughout their respective histories. The secular mind claims to be scandalized by this inability of religions to get along with each other. The secular liberal mind in particular insists that the solution lies in theoretic tolerance and relativism, in the denial of the importance of dogma, ultimately in the denial of intellect as such.
The religious mind is also itself perplexed by all of this religious-based struggle. It has sought in ecumenism and dialogue to overcome it. The liberal solution of modern political philosophy, of tolerance theory, insofar as it did not erect itself into a substitute religion, however, has proved more and more incapable of confronting the urgencies and demands of the religions. These religions are now in confrontation not merely among Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, but more and more with the so-called philosophical religions, with Buddhism, Hinduism, and the myriads of religious-related enthusiasms of our planet.
Eric Voegelin sought to incorporate the many "moments" of divine intervention in the world, represented to him by the various philosophers and religions, into a system of thought, into a way to avoid the language of doctrine and dogma through a parallel equivalence of the experience of transcendence. Yet, it would seem that the essential task is precisely one of the truth of the various religions and their experiences. In this sense, whatever the value of theoretic or practical tolerance, the world is not safe until the truth of the religions be explicitly confronted.
Modernity has avoided this particular effort, an effort that may, in fact, be unavoidable because of the very nature of man who is so made to seek this very truth. Though, like the early modern liberal, he was more concerned with the practice of tolerance than the truth of thought, Maritain's systematic effort to distinguish practical and theoretical understandings of the differing religions and philosophies did not underestimate the need to address the truth of the theoretical explanations of man and God contained in the various religions and philosophies.
Recalling Irving Kristol's remark about the contemporary dangers of paganism, Maritain began his 1937 essay by citing Maurice Samuel. "The most impressive Christian formulas concerning the spiritual essence of anti-Semitism," Maritain wrote of Samuel, come from "a Jewish writer, who seems profoundly unaware of their profoundly Christian meaning." Here is what Samuel wrote, as cited by Maritain:
We shall never understand the maniacal, world-wide seizure of anti-Semitism unless we transpose the terms. It is of Christ that the Nazi-Fascists are afraid; it is in his omnipotence that they believe; it is him that they are determined madly to obliterate. But the names of Christ and Christianity are too overwhelming, and the habit of submission to them is too deeply ingrained after centuries and centuries of teaching. Therefore, they must, I repeat, make their assault on those who were responsible for the birth and spread of Christianity. They must spit on the Jews as the 'Christ-killers' because they long to spit on the Jews as the Christ-givers.
In the context of contemporary deconstructionist and relativist ideology that sees specifically Western Civilization, with its understanding of reality, as the enemy of mankind, this reflection seems particularly insightful. The passage remains also significant both for Jews who see the "holocaust" as exclusively witness to their reality and for Christians who see Christ, born of the tribe of David, as the central "holocaust" before the Father.
Maritain, whose reflections on Israel are always rooted in St. Paul, began by pointing out that the Jews are not a "race" in the biological sense of the word, nor for that matter is anyone else. Nor are they a nation, nor a "people." The Jews gathered in Palestine, Maritain thought, again mindful of Kristol's reflections, are "a special and separate group bearing witness that the other Jews are not a nation." Rather "Israel is a mystery. Of the same order as the mystery of the world or the mystery of the Church. Like them," Maritain continued,
it lies at the heart of the Redemption. A philosophy of history, aware of theology, can attempt to reach some knowledge of this mystery, but the mystery will surpass that knowledge in all directions. If St. Paul is right, we shall have to call the Jewish problem a problem without solution.... To wish to find, in the pure, simple, decisive sense of the word, a solution of the problem of Israel, is to attempt to stop the movement of history.
Maritain's essay on "The Mystery of Israel," I think, divides itself naturally into three related issues. The first point is that even though its specific leaders at the time of Christ's trial, these and only these, specifically rejected Him as their Messiah, Israel retains a proper "vocation" in the plan of Yahweh. This plan does not change in any way the Father's original intention in Creation and specifically in the Creation of Man, to lead each human person freely and in his totality as a complete person, body and soul, to everlasting life, which is considered to be the divine life of the Trinity itself. God is faithful to Israel because He is first faithful to His nature, to Himself.
The very meaning of Creation, however, included a reflection of God in this world, a reflection at its highest expression put into being by human choice and culture. There was, as it were, an "inner-worldly" vocation of mankind, of which perhaps the Garden of Eden and the City of God were the best Biblical symbols, that is, a world in which there was a harmony of man, nature, and God. The Fall of Man was the initial disorder, the remedy for which, the selection of the Jews, was intended to be a first step. But God would not and could not carry out His plan for mankind without mankind's own choice or participation. The rejection of Christ meant that God was faithful, yet it also meant another order of history ensued by which and in which the remedies of the Fall and sin were to be confronted.
"The communion of this 'mystical body' (of all the Jews) is not the Communion of Saints," Maritain reflected, but
it is the communion of earthly hope. Israel passionately hopes for, awaits, wants the advent of God in the world, the Kingdom of God here below. It wants, with an eternal will, a supernatural and unreasonable will, justice in time, in nature, and in community. Greek wisdom has no meaning for Israel; neither its reasonableness nor its felicity in form. The beauty Israel seeks is ineffable, and Israel wants it for this life, the flesh, today.
This analysis of Israel on the part of Maritain was not intended to be utopian or paradoxical. Rather it reminds us of the faithfulness of Israel to the original vocation given to it by Yahweh.
In this context, we recall two things. The first thing is Leo Strauss' famous essay "The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy" in which he argued that Greek wisdom and Jewish revelation cannot refute each other. The second thing is Eric Voegelin's remark that modern ideology is the result of weak Christian faith wrongly seeking to find the Kingdom of God in this world. We will catch in these sources some of the import of this analysis of Maritain about the relation of the Jew to this world.
Let me take each of these scholars, Strauss and Voegelin, as representative of a certain type of responsible Jewish and Christian analysis. From their premises, it becomes clear that a meaning for reason in revelation and a lack of faith in believers both lead to the same conclusion. That conclusion is that the destiny of the world, its well-being, remains possible within Christian revelation provided this world be not conceived as resulting solely from human intelligence and enterprise and provided that revelation has some impact on reason itself. What both of these tendencies lead to, as Maritain hinted, is St. Thomas, a St. Thomas alien neither to reason nor to Israel.
Irving Kristol was thus right to see that modern secular humanism, a faith that believed that all was in the hands of man, including the distinctions between right and wrong, was the bitter enemy of Israel. To be sure, both secular humanism and Israel both envisioned a perfect world. But one saw it as the result of God's choice, while the other saw it as the product of man's autonomous will.
The argument of modern political philosophy about creating a world based on action and charity, as Strauss put it, is not alien either to Judaism or Christianity except in spirit and philosophic intent. But this compatibility does not mean that such an improved world will come about. Nor does it deny that a world totally alienated from the things of God can arise out of human will. What it does mean is that any reality of a better world, short of the divine life itself, depends in some sense on the personal relation of man to God, to the truth of this relationship as that is revealed to us.
St. Augustine, in one of his Sermons, "On Pastors" (#46), observed that "there are men who want to live a good life and have already decided to do so, but are not capable of bearing sufferings even though they are ready to do good. Now it is a part of Christian strength not only to do good works but also to endure evil." This thought brings us to Maritain's second point about the mystery of Israel in relation to its own vocation. "Of earthly hope the Jews have an excess, and of this virtue many Christians have not enough," Maritain wrote. "The basic weakness in the mystical communion of Israel is its failure to understand the Cross, its refusal of the Cross, and therefore of its refusal of the transfiguration."
We should not neglect to notice that this problem of the Cross and its implications goes back to the Platonic discussion of justice, to what can stop the cycle of vengeance in earthly justice. It might be said that the crucial intellectual difference between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism lies here. Maritain added with regard to this question of suffering and the Cross, its implications, that "the moment he (the Jew) begins to be aware of this mystery of forgiveness and of this putting off of self, he finds himself on the road to Christianity." The Holy War and the "eye for an eye" are themselves theoretical issues. This is why political problems are not independent of but rooted in theology, in the understanding of God and His relationship with the world, in the question of whether the Cross was true, existentially true, of whether forgiveness alone can stop vengeance.
Maritain then does not criticize the Jew for his longing for perfect justice in this world. In divine providence, as the Christian sees it, such a world -- always assuming we distinguish the promise to share divine life from a world imbued with justice -- is still possible, though not on Jewish terms alone. What is at issue is rather the means to this sort of world and whether this more just world is the final destiny that God had in mind for mankind.
"If the world hates the Jews," Maritain went on, it is because the world is well aware that they will always be supernaturally strangers to it; it is because the world detests their passion for the absolute and the unbearable activism with which this passion stimulates it. Thus, the very notion that the well-being of the world itself is not best accomplished by man by himself is the root challenge that revelation has given to the world, in particular to modern political philosophy and ideology. Classical political philosophy in some sense already had some awareness of the fact that the best society only existed in speech, that all actual societies were not perfect, even if they were good.
We can see the import of this challenge from modern political philosophy based on human theoretic autonomy in Maritain's remarks about the question of means. It is to be noted that with St. Thomas, the legitimacy of this world, of politics and economics, of the earthly tasks, is not to be seen in opposition to God's plan of redemption. The whole theory of natural law is itself a way to incorporate revelation and reason into the same intellectual world.
Maritain was correct in seeing exactly how this understanding of Judaism and Christianity was united in its opposition to modernity:
The hatred of the Jews and the hatred of the Christians spring from the same source, from the same will of the world which refuses to be wounded either with the wounds of Adam, or with the wounds of the Messiah, or by the spear of Israel for its movement in time, or by the Cross of Jesus for eternal life. Man is well off as he is; he needs no grace, no transfiguration; he will be beatified by his own nature. Here there is no Christian hope in God the Helper, nor Jewish hope in God on earth.
And yet as Maritain added, in anticipation of Voegelin's thesis, that in spite of its rejection of grace and doctrine, modern ideology and political philosophy have in effect retained that part of the revelational tradition that concerned itself with a perfect human life in this world. "History has so intoxicated them with Judaeo-Christianity," Maritain remarked of much modern ideolgues, "that they cannot help wishing to save the world."
The third point that Maritain made about the mystery of Israel was that, at bottom, we cannot leave Jewish and Christian life merely in separate and mutually non-relating spheres, as Strauss seemed to conclude. The Christian reading of the mystery of Israel is not apart from the divine plan whereby the Jewish vocation to Yahweh and the Christian vocation to God lead to the same divine end. Israel's sufferings are real enough, in Maritain's view, but they serve almost as Socrates' gadfly did, to keep the world from ignoring its own highest destiny as world. "Israel's passion is not a co-redemptive passion, achieving for the eternal salvation of souls what is lacking (as conscious applications, not merits) in the Saviour's sufferings. It is suffered for the goading on of the world's temporal life."
This passionate goading of temporal life for its own justice, moreover, is intended not for itself alone but, indirectly at least, for eternal life. While not denying an apocalyptic ending of the world in some sort of human tragedy, Maritain maintained that the destiny of the world itself was concerned with, dependent on, the reconciliation of Israel and Christianity.
On the spiritual level, the drama of love between Israel and its God, which makes gentiles participate in the economy of salvation, and which is but one element in the universal mystery of salvation, will be resolved only in the reconciliation of the Synagogue and the Church.... In any case, nothing requires us to think that the resolution will come at the end of human history, rather than at the beginning of a new age for the Church and the world.
Thus, there is an inner-worldly, essentially positive outlook in Maritain's reflections on Israel and Christianity.
With the end of Marxism and the publication of Centesimus Annus, the papal encyclical that recognizes the best in modernity for the achievement of a better world order, it becomes clear that the struggles are no longer those of learning how to improve the world or whom to blame for its dire condition. Rather the issue becomes one of the proper understanding and motivations for whatever tasks, real tasks, remain for man in the world. But these tasks are not to be conceived in opposition to the Kingdom of God already at work through the Church leading through sacrament and doctrine to eternal life. These tasks themselves essentially come into view in a proper and reasonable fashion when attention to man's final end as seen in revelation is kept in view.
Two years after the publication of "The Mystery of Israel," Maritain wrote a reply to an unnamed Belgian critic of his essay on Israel. Maritain, I think, was genuinely annoyed by this man, whom he called simply "Mr. So and So." Maritain continued huffily, "I prefer, for the sake of charity, not to name (him)." Maritain is said, by this "Mr. So and So," to have been too theological in his essay. "Mr. So and So" apparently saw the political, economic, and cultural aspects of the question of Israel to be simply of the order of nature.
I want to emphasize Maritain's response to this critique of his understanding of Israel because it is in line with John Paul II's remark that "in order that the demands of justice may be met, and attempts to achieve this goal may succeed, what is needed is the gift of grace, a gift which comes from God. Grace, in cooperation with human freedom, constitutes that mysterious presence of God in history which is Providence" (Centesimus Annus, #59).
The "mystery" of the mystery of Israel, I think, is contained in these reflections that suggest that the reconciliation of the Synagogue and the Church is itself the mysterious work that most needs doing by mankind of it is to attain the end of the modern project by the only means by which it can be attained, by essentially spiritual means. We already know the natural means, as it were. Our problems lie not only in the order of knowledge, in the truth about God, but also in the sphere of spirit and will.
"Israel is not supernaturally a stranger to the world in the same way as is the Church," Maritain in a remarkable passage replied to his Belgian critic.
The latter is the Kingdom of God, in a state of pilgrimage and crucifixion; the former is the people of God which God ever calls and which does not listen, but which preserves the hope of God on earth and a nostalgia for the absolute, and the Scriptures and the prophecies and the promises and the faith in the divine Holiness and the longing for the Messiah. The Jews are not hated by the world in the same way as are the Christians: the latter are hated by the world because of Jesus Christ and because of the Cross; the former because of Moses and the Patriarchs and because of the earthly stimulation which came to them as concerning the flesh. The Jews are not and will never be of the world, not because they share in the redeeming life of Christ and of the Kingdom of God, but because they are owed to Christ, because, set apart for God by their messianic vocation, they remain, even after their misstep, separated from the world by their passion for a Justice which is not of this world.
This conclusion would seem to suggest that the classic project of Christian philosophy, that of reconciling the Greeks with revelation, together with that historic and turbulent relation of Jews and Christians, remains the central intellectual task. Into this task comes the relationship to Islam, to the other non-revealed religions, to the condition of the world having exhausted the ideologies designed to bring on a perfect world by revolutionary and political processes themselves attributed solely to autonomous man.
Maritain ends his remarks to the Belgian philosopher with a reflection of St. Thomas drawn from his Commentary on John (xviii, 1). In this passage, Aquinas compared the relation of Israel and Christianity to Peter, who represented the Gentiles and natural law, and John, who represented the Jews and the Scriptures, both racing to the Tomb of Christ. "The Jewish people, the first to know the mystery of the Redemption," Aquinas wrote,
will be only the last converted to faith in Christ. Then, says the Gospel, John went in; Israel is not to remain eternally at the entrance to the Sepulchre. After Peter shall have gone into it, it will itself go in, for at the end the Jews also will be received into the faith.
How and in what form such faith will be received, of course, is not known to us. To know that, as Maritain said, would be to stop history.
There is no separation of grace and providence in the actual workings of the relations of Christians and Jews nor in the common destiny of mankind to which they are respectively ordained in the choices made about them and by them. In the midst of a world in which too often, as Irving Kristol remarked, Jews seem bent on eliminating all signs of Christianity from public expression and whose common civilization academics are now devoted to eliminating in terms of culture and education, it seem clear that the intellectual meaning of the great faiths and their relation to the tasks of the world, for its own sake, has never been more pressing. Many things have suddenly clarified.
One might well argue, with Kristol and Voegelin, that the weakness of the faith of Jews and Christians is itself the cause of the secular humanist and autonomous world that is now proving its own inadequacy even to itself. "Christianity and Judaism have been infiltrated and profoundly influenced by the spirit of secular humanism," Kristol remarked.
There are moments when, listening to the sermons of bishops, priests, and rabbis, one has the distinct impression that Christianity and Judaism today are, for the most part, different traditional vehicles for conveying, in varying accents, the same (or at least very similar) sentiments and world views. Of other-worldly views there is very little expression, except among the minority who are discredited (and dismissed) as "fundamentalists" or "ultra-Orthodox."
Needless to say, this analysis fits perfectly well with Maritain's understanding of "the mystery of Israel" and its relation to Christianity.
When both Jews and Christians express themselves in what are essentially terms of a secular religion and not in their own terms, the very understanding of the same world that each religion was designed to uphold is undermined. The Wall Street Journal (August 8, 1991) did a column on the question of who is a Jew. Some time later (September 11), if I might add to Irving Kristol's point about secularism in the faiths, the following letter appeared in the same Journal from a doctor in Grosse Point Park, Michigan:
I have been attentive to Jewish theological discourse over a half-century, and know most learned rabbis state that the essence of Judaism is "love thy neighbor" and the "golden rule" -- all else is commentary.
It should be clarified that Jews can be divided into four significant ways, not three: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Secular. Contrary to those rabbis who require synagogues and a flock of followers to make a living, it is possible to be a Jew in the best sense of the word without participating in organized religion. The Chosen People are free to choose, and America is the Promised Land.
Ironically, in this brief letter, we have most of the issues that we have been confronting us.
On reading this remarkable passage in the context of this discussion, furthermore, it is impossible not to recall the passage in Luke, in which Christ is asked by a lawyer what he must do to be saved. The lawyer is asked how he read "in the Law." He replied: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." To this response, Christ replied, "You have answered right, do this and life is yours" (10:25-28). Kristol's secular Jew or Christian, like the doctor, but unlike the lawyer with whom Christ spoke, forgot the first part of the commandment. Perhaps that is why he identified a given nation with precisely "the Promised Land." The proper location of the Kingdom of God remains the crucial theological issue because it remains the crucial issue of actual politics.
But Maritain had it right. In a passage that agrees substantially with that of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, Maritain wrote:
There is a certain apex of perfection and of supreme achievement, an acme of nature and of natural law to which the regime of grace inaugurated by the New Law is happily suited to carry nature, and to which nature left to itself could not succeed in attaining. Here is one of the essential aspects under which it is true to say that Christianity lifts up within their own order the things of culture and of the commonwealth. Thus there is a Christian honour, natural Christian virtues, a Christian law; thus there is, at work in history, and countered by powerful adverse forces, a Christian leaven which tends to cause human society to pass on into conditions of higher civilization.
The importance of this passage, in the context of the mystery of Israel, is that the work of God goes on even when our choices, which can easily have world-historic proportions, go against the good that God intends for and through us.
God is faithful. Israel will live with the choices of its leaders and be led to further choices. Christians will imitate the world and be weak in their faith, so weak that men will seek to establish the Kingdom of God not through Israel nor through the Cross, but on earth through their own efforts, efforts which specifically deny not merely Israel and Christianity, but Aristotle and Plato. The "mystery" of the mystery of Israel is not merely why Jews and not the Hittites are still here, contrary to all the lessons of modern social science. It is how the existence of Israel, of the Jewish people, in their universalism and in their particularism, serve to focus our attention on reason and revelation, on Jerusalem and Athens, on Islam and the justice that is so desired by all people, on eternal life itself.
The leaven for a higher civilization is at work among us. But that leaven does not and cannot bypass completely the intellectual understanding of the mystery of Israel and through it the relation of Israel to Christ and to all men at the ends of the earth, to whom the Apostles were sent to preach at the Ascension. The right understanding of God and His redemptive plan for the human race is not apart from the nations and their turmoils. The "mystery" of the mystery of Israel is its divine destiny being worked out through secular history. The Christian reading of this destiny leads to an understanding and subsequent choice about Christ, a choice unintelligible and unmeaningful outside the mystery of Israel itself.
God's will for mankind, for each of its members, in conclusion, remains constant, however human choices are made. But God would not be God if these choices did not make a difference. These choices are the deepest currents moving through the history of mankind and enable us, require us, again and again to ask ourselves if, in the light of what happened to us as a result of them, our choices were right. The first commandment remains, as the ancient lawyer said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and soul and mind." Without this first commandment, the second commandment will always lead us to attempt to build the world by ourselves.
The real penalty for this autonomy will simply be that God allows us our choices, allows us to love our neighbor on our terms, not His. But allowing us our choices, our autonomy, we find no rest, no Promised Land. We are again led to Augustine's question about where the City of God is finally located. The "double offense" of Israel and Christianity, to recall Walker Percy, remains in tact, "God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other; God became one man, he and no other." These mysteries are scandals to certain forms of science. God's promises are without repentance.
ENTITLEMENTS: UNINTENDED PARADOXES OF THE GENEROUS STATE
There will always be a wide range of difficult situations, as well as hidden and grave needs, which the manifold providence of the State leaves untouched, and of which it can in no way take account. Wherefore, there is always widespread scope for human action by private citizens and for Christian charity. Finally, it is evident that in stimulating efforts relating to spiritual welfare, the work done by individual men and by private civic groups has more value than what is done by public authorities.
-- John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, #120, 1961.
A cartoon in The New Yorker (Hendelsman, April 1, 1996) puts us in the living room of an uppity, probably Manhattan apartment. We see a reading lamp and, on the wall, a painting of what appears to be an odalisque. A father in his reading glasses and comfortable turtle-neck sweater is sitting in the sofa-chair paging through what looks like nothing so much as The New York Times. Beside him at the chair's right arm is his young son, about age five. The son is stationary holding in his hand the cord of a toy fire truck that he has obviously been pulling around the room while his father was reading the paper. The boy is now, however, standing alert, looking wide-eyed at his parent who has momentarily turned aside to speak to him in a most fatherly fashion, as if he were revealing the secrets of one generation to the next. The father, with a bemused, if not devilish, look on his face, off-handedly addresses the astonished boy. "By the way, Sam," he tells him, "as someday you'll be paying for my entitlements, I'd like to thank you in advance."
This cartoon, in fact, is as good an introduction to entitlements as any more scholarly one could be. We have here both the name "entitlement" -- you know it is an "in" word when it appears in a New Yorker cartoon -- together with current intimations about what it means. The lore about entitlements is that the younger generations will, much to their chagrin and expense, have to support, at rapidly increasing cost, the tremendous economic burden that the aging generations are going to cost. Notice here that we find implied nothing of the old-fashioned notion that families support each other in youth and old age via their own provisions and foresight. The son, whether he likes it or not, will take care of the father through the intervention of the all-powerful state. The son is expected, precisely, to "pay" for his father's entitlements.
The father, be it further noticed, is not working to leave his son an inheritance so that his son can have a better start in the world. Nor is the father saving for his own retirement. The father expects to be provided for by the mandatory entitlements that his son's generation will have to work to finance. And lest he, the father, seem ungrateful for this bounty, he is giving Sam, his son, an advanced word of appreciation while he (the father) is thinking of it. Sam, needless to say, stands bug-eyed before this inexplicable information that dooms him to slave away all his life to provide for his own and others' of his age parents. The father is obviously pleased at this ironic turn of events as it lets him off the hook for providing for his declining years. Probably the only cloud on his horizon is mandatory euthanasia when the entitlements' burden becomes too high for keeping dottering old men alive.
The morning I began these considerations, to continue these introductory remarks, I boarded the D.C. Metro Subway at Rosslyn, in Virginia, to go to Metro Center in the District of Columbia. I had to go there to buy four $10 senior citizen Metro tickets, to which I am entitled, having duly proved and registered my chronological age at a local Library on Wisconsin Avenue and R Street. The only place where I can buy these tickets, however, is at Metro Center. If I am out of pre-purchased tickets, I cannot use the normal fare kiosks at Metro stations for the special senior ticket. Without my entitled, pre-purchased ticket, I have to pay the regular steep fare. With these tickets, I cut the cost of a regular Metro fare more than half. Whether I am rich or poor does not make any difference in acquiring these tickets. Age, not need or merit, alone counts. Similar reductions exist for children. To use another word, I might say that I have a "privilege", a private law or arrangement to cover a special case that the legislator deems worthy. Presumably, the regular fares on Metro or general taxes are levied to pay for my less expensive ticket. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as a reduced Metro fare for which someone does not have to pay the difference, though I grant the free enterprise possibility, to which public entities are notoriously blind, that lower fares may in fact induce more to use the system and thus increase revenue!
On coming back from Metro Center, moreover, I took another line and got off at Dupont Circle, a stop that enabled me to use a bus transfer without having to pay extra. When I walked over to P Street, I noticed that several people were waiting for the G-2 Bus, which, as my good luck would have it, had just pulled up. As the first lady in line started to get on the bus, the driver asked her to stand back. Suddenly, noise of whirring machinery indicated that the lift for disabled passengers, installed by law in every city bus, was in operation. When it had extended itself, a gentleman in a wheel chair was efficiently lifted down to the sidewalk. He proceeded to wheel himself away and we all boarded the bus after the lift had been replaced. This man was again entitled to have the same ease of transportation as normal citizens, whatever the added cost of installing the lift mechanism on every bus might be.
These somewhat random but common incidents of humor and every-day existence serve to call our attention to the meaning and problems that occur in a political society in which entitlements have come to play an unexpectedly large role. At first sight, entitlements appear both as rights and as gifts from a generous state honorably seeking to provide for everyone. On the other hand, someone must pay for this generosity. What appears to be free usually is not. And secondly, entitlements, particularly those administered by the government, seem to undermine personal initiative and responsibility so that they become but another example of the growth and extent of the control of modern state in the lives of its citizens. Clearly, entitlements deserve serious examination.,
The word "entitlement" cannot be found in Aristotle's Politics or in St. Thomas' discussions of natural law, jus gentium, or justice, though one might argue that hints of it can be found in certain aspects of their discussions of distributive justice and epichia or equity. It does not appear in the Ten Commandments, in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution, or in the first Ten Amendments. One searches in vain for it in the 1935 Edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, nor is it in the 1968 International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. The word is not in the Spell-Check of Word Perfect 6.0, but it is in the Random House College Dictionary of 1975, where "entitle" itself means "to give a person or thing a title, right or claim to something; furnish with grounds for laying a claim." Evidently the "title" is "given" not "due" or "earned". The verb "entitle" has overtones of giving titles of nobility, of something to do with honor more than justice or debt. Entitlement first appears in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature in 1988 with no specific journal entry, but with this interesting note, "See Economic Assistance, Domestic". As a technical word, the term has been in the courts since the late 1960's. Only after 1991 does it appear with any regularity in the Periodical Indices.
Interestingly enough, what we can learn from this brief survey is that in the beginning of its recent development, "entitlement", for the index classifiers at least, seemed to be understood as a domestic variant of "foreign aid". And "aid" in any form usually had the connotation of something temporary, something supplied to get some project or work started, something supplementary or helpful, something due to largess. The first entitlement entry in the Social Science Index was in 1991, in which an article from The Economist of London was listed with the instructive title, "The Entitlement Mentality", as if it were some sort of mind-set, if not a disease. At first the word seemed to be merely a budgetary term, a way to account for the disbursement of certain government monies, without any implied philosophical implications about the theoretic grounds to explain why such monies should be offered. In its usage all along, the word hovered very close to the word "right", itself a word of some considerable ambiguity in modern thought and one always in need of clarification about how it is being used.
The Latin word for "right" in pre-modern thought was jus, a word that meant something objective, something apart from human will, some norm of reason which the will searched out and to which it was obligated. Jus meant what was objectively right or due in an exchange or relationship, what one was obliged to whether he liked it or not. Jus called us because of what it was, because of its rightness. After Hobbes, however, the word "right" in most modern thought lost its objective grounding and became, following perhaps Suarez, subjective. It began to mean what was thought to be due to someone, what someone else owed us. Jus had an otherness and objective emphasis; "right" has an individualist and subjective stress. "Right" was not correlative to anything objective. Right was what was "owed" to us whether we did anything about it or not. For Hobbes in the state of nature we literally had a right, no restriction, to everything and anything. And as the list of "rights" began to expand to cover more and more aspects of life, modern thought began to search for someone or something to give us our due, our rights when we could not simply "take then" by our own powers.
Man has a natural "right" to everything, to repeat the view of Hobbes and his modern followers. Eventually this "right" came to be guaranteed by the all-powerful state that took over, by an incontrovertible logic, the dire consequences of everyone having a right to everything -- the war of all against all. From its subsumption of all rights into itself, the state took on the the duties of assigning rights according to its own purposes. Rights became what the state enforced with effective penalties. Hobbes was subsequently considered one of the main founders of modern liberalism because his all-powerful state took away all reasons for theological and philosophical controversy or warfare. As a result of its imposed peace, the state became richer and richer. There was more and more to distribute. The state's contract with its citizens decided their rights, apart from which, having abandoned the state of nature, no rights in effect existed. The last vestiges of the classic natural rights which limited the state were almost totally subsumed into the unlimited state as itself a rights defining and dispensing institution. The negative state that prevented strife and war and guaranteed justice became the welfare state, or what I will call "the Generous State", the one that distributed benefits according to its own perception of what citizens want and need..
Legally, rights were often originally "liberties", a stated freedom from certain laws and customs, a limitation on government. Government was seen initially as an institution preventing individual liberties from coming forth. But it soon came to mean the institution that "guaranteed" and fostered rights and liberties and eventually the institution that defined and made rights possible. Rights were also originally considered to be consequent on duties. Rights look at what is due to an individual or what someone cannot be prevented from doing or having. Duties, on the other hand, refer to what someone ought to do. If we only had rights but no one had duties to us, we would profit nothing from them. If I have a "right to life" but no one has a moral or legal "duty" not to kill me, the "right" really profits me little. Governments existed to enforce the rights that free will and voluntary negotiation could not effect.
Classic "bills of rights" from the English, French, and American Revolutions did not talk of entitlements, but the lists of "rights" that came into fashion with international organizations after World War II did have "economic and social" rights, notions that come pretty close to what we mean by entitlements. Economic and social rights were much more ambiguous than classical natural rights, themselves also denied any ontological status in modern philosophy. With economic and social rights, it is much more difficult to identify just who owes what to those said to be entitled. Obviously, a poor society cannot entitle its citizens to benefits it cannot produce. Economic or social rights or entitlements had something vague about them, something whose existence depended on something else, the existence of which it did not profoundly concern itself. This something that provided a rational and definition of rights due was more and more the all-powerful state. Human flourishing and well-being were not so much the responsibility of the individuals but of the state. Paradoxically, claims against the state were made in the name of definitions about individual welfare formulated by the state itself.
"What are entitlements?" Peter Peterson and Neil Howe ask in their 1988 study On Borrowed Time.
The term entitlement usually refers to those benefits -- whether in cash or in kind -- that the federal government automatically pays to qualified individuals. As a rule, entitlement programs ostensibly contain some strong social welfare dimension, though in the case of Social Security and Medicare, this is obscured by the insurance metaphors commonly used to describe payroll taxes and benefits. As defined by the House and Senate Budget Committees, entitlements consist of any federal outlay that either requires no annual appropriation by Congress or must be appropriated by Congress according to the terms of some underlying statute or program legislation. Thus, as long as a given law remains in force, an "entitled" beneficiary can sue the government for failure to pay benefits. If the underlying statute were to be amended or abolished, however, program participants ... would have no legally enforceable right to receive their payments.
Similar provisions are found in most modern states and in most state governments in the United States.
Certain benefits thus are due to certain defined classes or types of citizens or oftentimes to all citizens. The origin of these benefits is founded in legally enacted public purpose, one that the courts have generally expanded in liberal fashion. It is assumed that these benefits help and do not hinder the recipients or the polity that distributes them. Very often it takes some time to evaluate the effects of such entitlements. Aid to dependent children, clearly well-intentioned, may, in fact, end up undermining the integrity and existence of a two-parent family and the well-being of children themselves. Good intentions alone do not always or even usually make good laws. No doubt the least studied aspect of the modern state system is the analysis of the dire effects of legislative and judicial good intentions. Once one falls under the defined categories, in any case, he can expect his benefit and can sue the state if it or some other entity under its jurisdiction fails to provide for what it has promised. If rights, privileges, and liberties were originally conceived to be limits to or exemptions from state jurisdiction, entitlements seem to emphasize rather what the state "owes" to its citizens, wherein the state keeps the power both to define what the citizen is, no matter what his existential status as a human being from nature, and what benefiting him means. Rights and entitlements do not come from outside of but from within the state.
Politically, most states have found that they cannot easily restrict entitlements once their citizens have come to "expect" them from their government. Entitlements come close to defining and spelling out what states "owe" to their citizens. The purpose of entitlements often is to bring everyone up to a certain minimum judged to be necessary for human well-being. All the resources of the state are commanded to meet this need to which someone is entitled. Conceived in this fashion, the state claims a moral purpose, a compassionate or paternal purpose. The state assumes into itself more and more the private aid-giving institutions when their moral or religious impetus or inspiration flags or fails. Behind this notion of entitlement we must at least ask about where this principle that the state "owes" anything to its citizens comes from? What might entitlements imply about human nature and the state? Is the state the only or major source for confronting the needs that entitlements are designed to meet?
The discourse of entitlements is almost always lofty and noble in intention. The results of their enactment into law, however, frequently seem less exalted, often appearing to to foster laziness, dependence, and state control of all phases of human life. On the obvious assumption that whatever the state distributes must come from someplace other than itself, from what citizens produce or earn, entitlements, unlike say the original Homestead Act of the last century, emphasize not the producing aspect of public life or the principles and attitudes that are required for it but the distribution aspect. It takes no great subtlety to see how such differing mentalities that emphasize distribution or production can come into conflict in practice.
Aristotle's famous virtue of munificence (The Ethics, Book 4) saw great virtue in allowing the very rich to distribute their wealth privately in the form of things that foster the good, the true, the beautiful, or help for the needy. This Aristotelian virtue recognized that wealth, legitimately acquired, could be used for good or evil purposes. The virtue sought to orient the soul those things that were noble and worthy, that provided for a level of living and worth attained only by those who understood the value and purpose of higher things in the community. While this virtue still exists in free societies, the fact is that high taxing policies, often caused by needs to pay for entitlements, minimize this capacity and resource of munificence in the population. Moreover, with increasing control of the definitions of good, beautiful, true, and what is needed, the state gains more and more control of the culture. It is no accident that higher education, humanities and arts policies, shows in museums reflect this concentration of distribution capacities in the hands of the state.
Obviously, the term "entitlement" has been fashioned to cover a phenomenon of the modern state, one almost has to say, of the "welfare state". The dictionary definition of the welfare state is, interestingly, "a state in which the welfare of the people in such matters as social security, health, education, housing, and the working conditions is the responsibility of the government." Presumably, a non-welfare state would be one in which the "social security, health, education, housing, and working conditions of the citizens were not the responsibility of the government" but of the citizens themselves or of some other social body. At least some people in modern political thought have seen such a welfare state as a "servile" state, a state in which well-being is exchanged for government control, even if the government be democratic and supposedly benign in form. The essence of the "servile" state is one wherein the citizens must work for those who do not work productively, be they capitalists or bureaucrats. Dependency on entitlements can be looked on from this angle as a means to make the vast majority of citizens incapable of any free movement because it would jeopardize their welfare. Their entitlements, in other words, far from freeing them, have tamed them; they have no independent liberty, such as property was originally designed to give them, from the taxing or coercive power of the state.
Entitlements refer to the distribution of society's benefits, usually financial but also benefits in kind, like Food Stamps, to those who fall into this or that legislatively defined category. Entitlements seem to be products of what I am calling here not the welfare state but "the Generous State", for they do not merely address dire, temporary conditions but long-range ones that need not always exist but which are nice or helpful when they do exist. The citizens of the Generous State are often well-off, presumably because of the benefits they receive. That is, in terms of average income, compared to other societies, those on entitlement income seem rich in terms of goods and services. Generous states in the modern era, however, are running into increasing public debts and concerns about bankruptcy because, following a principle already found in Plato, desires for benefits, once set in motion, seem unlimited. Since the state itself produces nothing, its so-called "generosity", a name properly used of individuals in their personal relations to others, comes from others, from monies garnered through the taxing process. The irony of being "generous" with someone else's money does not lessen when the state itself is said to be generous.
Some entitlements are for everyone; some for this or that group within society, often initially perceived to be given on a "need" basis. It is clear that organized and active societies can and do produce enormous wealth precisely because they are so organized with an enterprising population. The principle of specialization is also a principle for societal wealth production. The world is not really a zero-sum game, wherein everyone has to produce everything or wherein there is a fixed amount to be distributed such that if we give to some, we must take from others. Belief in such a position, such as we often find in modern ecologists or environmentalists, is one of the major causes for the increased power of the state in recent times.
The ultimate source of wealth, however, is not material goods or things in the ground but the human brain, intelligence, which to all practical purposes is unlimited. If we add the human brain and its innovative capacities to the gifts of the earth, unexpected, enormous riches result. Entitlements are based on the share of this wealth that is commandeered and distributed by the state on some public basis defined in its law. Entitlements can thus be conceived as incentives, rewards, compensations, and free givings, but their cost can also be burdensome and counterproductive so that they actually are a drag on society, especially when they are looked on independently from the problems and conditions of production and the nature of human intelligence.
In their present form, entitlements could not exist, however, if the state did not exist and did not command some portion of what is produced by citizens to be distributed on its (the state's) and not the citizen's own criterion. The state as such is rarely, if ever, a producer of wealth. This is, among other things, the lesson of modern socialism and communism. Payments to a states' own bureaucrats and administrators, moreover, can turn out to be a huge cost, especially in states wherein the well-being provisions themselves require a large voting bureaucracy to distribute the entitlements. Indeed, the entitlements of state employees in terms of vacations, retirement benefits, health care, and other privileges often are far in excess of those available to non-state employed citizens. The employees of the state become major political actors seeking to protect or extend their benefits and their own entitlements.
What the state has to distribute, however, must be taken from what is produced by someone other than its own employees. The experience of modern states is that, however necessary a stable public order may be, these states are themselves notoriously poor producers of wealth and often fail to understand how wealth is produced at all. Poverty in the modern world is often caused, not by lack of resources, but by the state's selecting the wrong intelligence about wealth and the conditions of its increase. The ability of a state to offer entitlements is always jeopardized by its taking, usually through taxes, of much too high a percentage of the wealth of its people. This is why the best entitlements policy must always be that which leaves as much as possible with those who produced the wealth in the first place for their own provisioning of their needs. It is not just a question of the volume of money collected from the productive citizens but of resultant lowering or destruction of incentives. In this sense, the claim to entitlements brings us straight to profound questions in economics and political philosophy.
Perhaps the oldest efforts to distribute benefits came from the wars, from pensions and allotments of land or money, later to G.I. Bills and guaranteed benefits on retirement, payments, PX privileges, Veterans' Hospitals and Homes. Here, in the case of the military in all societies, there was the relation between military compensations to distributive justice and to the unequal bearing of others' burdens in war and defense. Soldiers in the Roman legions looked for grants of land on being mustered out of service. Those who fought in battles or served in armies were considered to be entitled to special rewards or benefits, in many cases to lifetime care, from a grateful citizenry whose freedom the armies had defended or preserved. Failure to carry through promised recompense was in many societies a course of civil disturbance if not governmental overthrow.
On retirement from the military, which happened by comparative standards at quite an early age in recent times, the veteran could go to work and make whatever sort of income he could garner. Aside from income tax totals, his military income was simply a regularly received payment or allotment. The veteran considered that he was entitled to it, even that he earned it. If he did not want to do another thing the rest of his life, that was fine too. This distribution of benefits was looked upon as a matter of justice. And that word justice brings us back to the classical discussions of general and special justice, of commutative and distributive justice, of equity and fairness. Entitlements did not seem to have quite the aura of justice or right connected to them.
All forms of justice had the connotation of "rendering what was due". Justice relationships needed to be defined in terms as clear as possible to be understood, preferably in mathematical or proportional terms. It needed to be evident that someone was not getting something for nothing, but for a title, a reason. Getting something for nothing was indeed a very high form of exchange, perhaps the highest, something we call gift or benefice, but it was not justice and did not fall under the aura of the state. A world of only justice was a terrible world since it only looked to exchanges, to abstract relationships, not to the persons who did the exchanging in their particularity. But still justice was a reality and could not be overlooked except, again, voluntarily or freely. Notions of forgiveness and repentance were designed to mitigate the rigidities of justice. There was something particularly noble about not demanding justice. One could accept another's burden or give of what was justly his without demanding anything in return. Justice indeed seemed to exist for something beyond itself; it seemed limited.
Entitlements somehow appeared to recognize that this something beyond justice can be articulated even by the state, though one might still argue whether what is being gotten at by entitlements is the best way for a society to meet its problems, even its peripheral problems. "Rights talk", as Mary Ann Glendon called it, or "entitlements talk", as I will call it here, seems to bear the connotation of a demand that something be given freely, an obvious contradiction. If something is given freely, and that is our perfection in a way, it is not by way of right, which has the implication of something due, that is, something not given freely but given because something objective obliges.
Commutative or rectificatory (making right) justice was that exchange that took place either because of damage done by accident or deliberation, such as skidding into another car because of a flat or because of stealing, or because of advantages gained by voluntary agreement. What is characteristic of all forms of justice is the mutual and equitable exchange. What is owed is what is to be returned. Justice enabled damage to be repaired or it enabled something new to enter the world through entrepreneurship. Careful accounting of who did what, of who was responsible for what, was in effect in commutative justice. On this basis of surety, one could go ahead and plan rationally and expect results of one's foresight and work to be apportioned out fairly. Justice wants rewards to be assigned exactly and with reason, with title.
Insofar as the state entered into these agreements or exchanges, it was primarily to hold the contractors to their pledged word. Without the assumption of justice, very little would be undertaken. In the case of distributive justice in which the common goods or burdens of society were assessed and meted out, however, the principle of exchange was after the manner of proportionate contribution or proportionate burden. Civil disturbances or unrest, Aristotle had told us in the Fifth Book of The Politics, occurred when those who contributed more felt they were rewarded less or when those who had no distinction thought that everyone ought to be treated absolutely equally, no matter what more they did. The polity, in any case, was recognized as an arena in which there was a common good, that is, where many different private and individual goals and institutions could flourish because there was a settled order so that everyone did not have to do everything. The state did not "do" everything but provided the settled order in which myriads of individuals and their organizations could operate to do what they saw fit. If the state tried itself do everything, it would violate its own common good. The Platonic undercurrent to this principle simply meant that spiritual and material riches of the whole required that many different talents be allowed to flourish. Not everyone could or had the time to do everything.
In his book, Thoughts on Machiavelli, Leo Strauss remarked that one of the causes of disorder in the modern state was precipitated by Christianity in a rather paradoxical fashion. Strauss' point is a subtle one. He argued that revelation had caused an elevated expectation about what human nature by itself could and would be able to accomplish. That is, ideas of charity, mercy, forgiveness, and sacrifice, which came into existence by virtue of doctrines and inspirations resulting from grace, from revelation, began to evaporate in modernity. What did not change so much, however, were the ideals or goals that these teachings put into existence. That is, the elevated expectations were still in the souls of the populace so that, even with the decline of belief and moral virtue, the accomplishment of these ideals became the duties not of charity or church but of the modern state, whose instruments of action did not include mercy. At the foundations of the modern state is a sense of compassion divorced from grace. Compassion apart from grace in practice is pride, the claim that what is not within our powers is capable of being accomplished by us by non-revelational means, by our own capacities, in other words. For our purposes here, this means that the state has come to be responsible for goals that were not conceived possible by normal political or economic institutions, but which were anticipated by grace. In a sense, the Kingdom of God came to mean something happening primarily in this world through political means.
A further element in this consideration has to do with the modern idea of rights. The modern idea of rights has its origins in Hobbes and his state of nature. Rights, contrary to the older natural law thinking, were presupposed to nothing. Man had a natural right to everything, a right that required no natural or divine law. Rights came to mean, as we have indicated, what the government, the Leviathan, granted to us. The modern notion of rights had connected with it a kind of arbitrariness. Rights were not "natural" but "civil". The state was designed to define and protect rights, but rights in the first place were what the state granted. Rights were created by legislation. We knew what was a law because we could see what the state enforced. Once we gave up our natural right to everything by entering the state, we did not have a right to anything but what the state
enforced or defined. No one had to bother about some sort of "higher law".
If we put these several ideas together, we can begin to understand what is behind the question of entitlements. "Rights ... are demands for government goods and services," R. Shep Melnick has written, "rather than for demands for protection against government intrusion -- entitlements, rather than liberties.... The traditional American emphasis on individual rights has melded with the modern welfare state. If the older view of rights as individual liberty delayed and stunted the growth of the welfare state, then the newer view of rights as entitlements has helped it to flourish." We have here stated in clear terms the problem that entitlements present. The earlier view of rights was a means to restrict the state. This was Locke's idea that that government governs best that governs least. The government was conceived to be primarily an impediment to individual liberty. The government was designed to protect this individual liberty. It is with Rousseau and Mill that individual liberty becomes social liberty, that what we want is what the state wants for us.
Why have entitlements enabled the government to flourish? One aspect of this question would be that the size of government increased to administer the entitlements themselves designed to provide for the people. Government itself became a major cost. Those who worked for the government, in terms of vacations, health insurance, retirement, conditions of labor, turned out to be the most protected group in society. Entitlement programs also became the vested interest of those who administered the program. Government workers did not work for good will or charity. The service structure to administer politicized compassion was itself a great independent cost. A certain significant percentage of every sum spent on compassion and entitlement went to those who administered the program. Thomas Sowell has pointed out that in terms of foreign aid, the amount of money returned to the Third World from families of immigrants or guest workers exceeded all the public foreign aid of all the nations. We can wonder whether some analogous system not on the state level might not be a better one to achieve the purposes that entitlements were designed to accomplish.
From the viewpoint of political philosophy, in conclusion, how does one take the measure of entitlements? There is an ancient argument about the state and its justification. The first argument stems from Aristotle and Aquinas, both of whom understood the darker side of human nature, especially the tyrannical tendencies that are often found in human experience. Their positive argument maintains that, in spite of the admitted defects of actual human nature, the state is a natural institution. Man is by nature a political animal, but not only a political animal. Or better, it can be argued that in being a political animal, man is still a being whose end and purposes transcend anything limited to the state's purposes itself. This means that by the very fact of his following his given nature, man should set up a civil polity to enable him to do many things that could not be done or done as well outside of this formal organization. But it also means that even with the state institutions in effect, these civil institutions do not exhaust or define man's highest purposes.
This state could be organized according to various ends, not all of which were noble. The question of the best regime and its location was a crucial one, even though the best regime that could be expected in politics in this world existed only rarely. All actual regimes were in practice less than the best. Man's disordered soul could reflect itself, as Plato knew, in his political organization The Republic, Books VIII-IX). But implicitly, the state existed that the myriad forms of good that man could cause and ought to cause could come to pass. The state existed, in other words, that the highest things might exist, things that were mostly beyond the state. Human actions, however, were legitimate and their expressions in terms of habits and laws were the proper, if limited, arena of the state.
The second view of the state, one associated with Augustine, held that the state was primarily a remedial institution; it only existed because of sin or the Fall, which itself ought not to have existed. Man is not by nature a political animal in this view. The fact is, as any minimally observant person knows, that there is a wide scope for evil and greed in the world that constantly manifests itself, even in terms of law and political institutions. This situation was discussed in the classic authors in terms of decline of regimes or disordered regimes. The kings and princes, senators and rulers, that organize and rule the state are themselves subjected to the consequences of the Fall.
That is, the state can be the most dangerous of human institutions, multiplying evil as well as good. Not infrequently in history the state has been the most dangerous enemy of human dignity. The best the state can do is to keep disorder at a minimum without ever promising anything approaching perfection. This is the sort of realism that greets us with any historical knowledge of human existence. And in terms of the topic of these reflections, of entitlements designed to benefit citizens and the operations of the Generous State, we can expect that such arrangements will be subject to abuse and in fact may serve to corrupt, in some unexpected but easily identifiable fashion, a whole society in the name of something that seemed like a worthy enterprise.
In examining the mechanisms of entitlement legislation over the years, it is not difficult to see the Augustinian side of what seemed to be a worthy proposal working itself out. In civil life as in personal life, it remains true that we judge legislation by what we intend it to do, but we must be honest enough to see that we must also examine it in the context of what it does do. Entitlement proposals seem to be a product of efforts to guarantee a stable and prosperous life for the citizens of modern states. The state sees itself as dispensing good things to its citizens, as fulfilling its obligations to them in terms of distributive justice.
The question remains, however, whether the state should be the institution that is primarily responsible for this otherwise laudable purpose. Certain minimal things must be granted to the state both as a directing and as a remedial institution. On the other hand, the state is one institution among others. It is, if we can put it this way, that institution that makes it possible for other institutions to exist and flourish. Likewise, it is, because of its coercive monopoly, that institution that can prevent their developing. The most important things are not found in the state. The temptation of all modern states is to deny this proposition, to assume into themselves those elevated expectations that were implanted into the soul of man by revelation but to assume that these expectations could be provided by means other than those indicated in that same revelation.
Once man is no longer seen as someone whose ultimate purpose and destiny transcends the state, his sights are lowered to this life. When this lowering takes place in the minds of individuals, then the relative rank of the state is elevated to that of the most important institution available to man. It has subsumed into itself those things formerly held to belong to something higher than the state. Aristotle had said that politics is the highest practical science, not the highest science as such. One could argue, as I do argue, that the modern discourse of rights and entitlements is the result of this subtle displacement of the position of the state from that of a natural institution subject to the nature and ends of man to that of the highest institution itself. The function of the state comes to be the defining and providing function for all that is needed for human life, a provision that conceives its task in primarily this-worldly terms. The state expresses itself in terms of laws, rights, entitlements, and benefits. The growth of entitlements, of the state's increasing control of human well-being in all its phases, including primarily its very definition, is the case of a well-intentioned proposal going wrong because its authors' understanding of what it was about is motivated by ideas and provisions that work against human nature and destiny as that is understood in its fullness.
The redress of this growing control of the state through its benefit giving, generously motivated activities, it would seem, lies, at the institutional level, with a re-emphasis on the production side of human well-being, on what produces wealth and the virtues and essentially private but still social institutions that result when people are given the freedom and duty to provide for themselves. Movements such as home schooling, removing education from state bureaucracies, innovative business generated through small capital beginnings reflect the vitality of a free and responsible people allowed to provide for themselves. Again here we need to be reminded that there is no substitute for accurate understanding of human purpose and human vice, of what resources are available to us in both traditions of virtue and in traditions of revelation. What has caused the modern state the freedom to incorporate into itself ideas and institutions that have worked against human worth has not originally been the state itself. The first disorders of a society always originate in the minds and hearts of the dons, academic and clerical. It is true that we can suggest, as I have done here, the consequences of these disorders in political terms. The fact remains, following a suggestion of Edmund Burke, that a virtuous people can make even bad institutions plausibly work for worthy projects and an unvirtuous people can ruin even the best of political or economic arrangements.
Entitlements are in fact political and economic realities that most often were proposed and enacted with the best of intentions. As their purposes worked themselves out, however, it became clear that they had the effect of transferring much wealth and independence of the citizen over to the state. Theoretically, the state assumed the responsibility not only of well-being but of defining well-being. The Generous State treated its citizens and especially those who directly worked for it exceedingly well. Somehow, it also corrupted the whole social order because it did not attend to the productive or innovative side of human reality and the vast reaches of intelligence and organization that were located there. This is why the remarks from John XXIII cited at the beginning of these reflections remain so pertinent. The secret sources of grace and human energy need to be allowed to work, need to be fostered through the principle of leaving things at the lowest level as possible, through not wanting the state to provide for all ills and the righting of all wrongs.
The state as the primary substitute for divine providence and bounty is a dangerous entity precisely because it has lost contact with the true destiny and nature of man as he exists in this world. We have, so to speak, been blessed with an "entitlement" that always limits the state and elevates us to a higher level than the state can provide for us. When this higher level is restricted, unrecognized, not allowed to grow, the state will see human life as a failure on its own terms. It will come to see its own task as that of replacing those energies and forces that are no longer encouraged or allowed to exist in human society.
The generous state easily becomes the all-caring and all-powerful state, seeing itself as acting in the highest and most noble motives. Entitlements that reduce us to wards or subjects of state largess as the proper and only ambiance for out actions and security are not neutral either in theory or in practice. Reflections on entitlements, like all questions of politics and economics, can and should bring us to confront the conditions and nature of the highest things. When we do not have these latter considerations in proper order, we will in all likelihood end up corrupting even those institutions, such a entitlements, that we proposed and put into effect with the most noble of intentions.
5) Remarks by James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University, to the Conference Panel on "Religion and the Generation of Morality," with Harry Jaffa, Claremont College, and Walter McDougall, the University of Pennsylvania. The Claremont Institute Conference "Progress or Return? Beyond Enlightenment," February 28-29, 1992, Claremont, California.
The focus of this conference discussion is on the generation of morality. The assumption is that if morality, right acting, is to be achieved, then there are certain ideas, techniques, or practices that aid or hinder this generation. The question is asked in particular whether religion can contribute to virtue and morality? Presumably, if it cannot, religion is irrelevant to the most basic human enterprises. It is a kind of "opium," as a now discredited philosopher once derisively held.
The implication was, of course, that religion must be false if it cannot so contribute to the generation of morality. No doubt there is some considerable truth to this feeling. For worldly or moral success must itself be a result of religious faith and action for us to take it seriously. True thought, true virtue, true religion, it is suggested, must go hand-in-hand as if they belonged together in a coherent whole.
For many thinkers, even in antiquity, religion was a kind of substitute for philosophy. Religion with its myths or doctrines was designed to serve the greater masses of people who could not, because of a lack of virtue or talent or time, be themselves philosophers. The polis could not contain all philosophers without destroying itself. Those ordinary people who could not be those intellectuals who saw in reason the dimensions of right action would be given stories, accounts of gods and their dealings with men. They would catch but hints and images of the highest things that the philosopher held in such awe. They would do the right things without knowing exactly why they were right. Even the Commandments were precisely "commands" and not conclusions from a practical syllogism. They kept order without explaining why it should be kept in the first place.
The philosopher hovered over religion as its higher self. Philosophy allowed no fantastic myths between itself and what is. Most people most of the time, however, were guided in their practical activity by religion, not philosophy. Religion was thus presumed to be a kind of substitute for philosophy, but it was not perceived to be a challenge to philosophy's own incompleteness. The philosophers, however, were the authentic representatives of our kind. They alone, it was said, grappled directly with the highest things. They spent their lives preparing for death, with no other reward but virtue itself, none of those selfish rewards or nasty punishments that most people needed to generate virtue.
Religion, like parenthood, however, seemed to be rooted in a certain kind of imperfect justice. It was sometimes called "pietas" and suggested that there were some debts that could not be fully repaid. This strange debt, in turn, hinted that there were things beyond justice. The world, the city, seemed to proceed by justice, yet justice somehow could not account for all that was in the world. St. Thomas made the startling statement (I, 21, 4) that the world itself, though created in justice, this very justice presupposes mercy. This mercy hints that philosophers reach not merely reason but willed reason when they seek the explanation of the reality to which they claim to be committed.
In his Conversations in Montreal in 1980, Eric Voegelin, reflecting on St. Paul's "faith, hope, and charity," along with St. Augustine's amor Dei, in the light of Bergson's "openness of the soul to transcendence," remarked that "we all experience our own existence as not existing out of itself but as coming from somewhere even if we don't know from where" (Thomas More Institute Papers, p. 9). If our existence is experienced as not coming from ourselves, we cannot help but wondering whether this existence is intended to have a kind of order that we can discover and pursue? Is the generation of morality, in other words, a command as well as a reasoned discourse?
In his "Treatise on the Law" (I-II, 91, 4), St. Thomas asked whether in addition to reason we needed, most of us, any revelation in order that we might be what we are? He recalled that the civil law cannot penetrate to our thoughts from which most of our disorders arise. Then he pointed to those passages in the New Testament that command us rightly to order even our thoughts, even our desires, lest the great evils that proceed out of the human soul be not effectively interrupted at their very core. Religion in the light of revelation seemed to result not only in a proper relation to God but, indirectly perhaps, in a proper ordering of the polity itself.
Even more basically, Aquinas suggested that even though the philosopher might come to some knowledge of God or a First Cause, we, in our self-insufficiency, could not help but wonder what this cause might be like. We wondered whether our self-reflective realization that we are not self-complete might not suggest that this origin of all being, especially our own, might not also be intelligent and desire to communicate with us? Somehow, right thinking and right acting were not totally disparate, even for the non-philosopher.
What seemed even more startling was that it was not only the philosopher who seemed to be made for the highest things. When the young Augustine affirmed, in the name of all of us, that "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee," in the first pages of his Confessions, he was not just addressing the philosophers. He was closer to Voegelin's awareness of our own non self-caused grounding in reality.
In a way, it almost seems that Chesterton was right in his reflection on St. Thomas, that revelation was strangely democratic, that it was concerned that the non-philosopher did not miss the highest things. Even if he were not a philosopher, the ordinary man would know how to act rightly, even if he chose not to do so. The other side of revelation was that morals, when generated, had a transcendent end. It was possible, even for the insignificant, to refuse it, a possibility that gounded the drama of each individual human life.
And what of the philosopher? He had himself to contend with. The very act of philosophy seemed to lead to a kind of proud self-sufficiency that isolated the philosopher within his own mind. The philosopher often seemed quite foolish, as St. Paul told the Corinthians. Could it be possible that the philosopher needed revelation as much, perhaps more, than the non philosopher? Plato had already hinted that the worst aberrations we experience come from the philosopher who has chosen himself over what is.
Revelation did not tell the philosopher not to philosophize. But it did tell him to listen, to recognize that his thoughts at their most perceptive led him to formulate certain questions that seemed to be responded to in revelation. Thus, religion seemed designed to address the manner in which the philosopher in all existing societies seemed to undermine the very society in which religion served as a guide for civil peace.
Revelation served the generation of morals not merely in presenting a right order of commandment for action but in moderating the philosopher so that he did not turn on society with his own inner speculations, rooted in nothing but himself. Religion, thus, did not make everyone philosophers. Nor did it suggest that the destiny of the philosopher and the non-philosopher was not the same Kingdom of God. What it did suggest was that the danger of the philosopher was real.
What the philosopher held did make a difference both to the polity and to philosophy, as well as to the philosopher himself. Even the philosopher's existence "comes from somewhere, even if he does not know where." The function of religion in the generation of morals is not merely that we act rightly, though it is at least this. It is first that we, even if we be philosophers, know our final end. In this, I think, revelation and the First Book of The Ethics of Aristotle meet.
IMMANENT IN THE SOULS OF MEN
"The principal act of social life is immanent in the souls of men. It is a communion in some belief, love, or aversion.... The principal part of our common good is contained within our souls."
In gathering together the bibliography of his many writings, we have available to us in this welcome volume a complete listing of Yves Simon's clear and incisive books, essays, and reviews, as well as materials about him, information that often we only knew in part. Many admirers knew of Yves Simon on authority, of course, and perhaps on free will and democratic government. We knew that he was a follower of St. Thomas, of his relation to Maritain and Gilson, but we forget sometimes John of St. Thomas or Simon's writings on science, metaphysics, and knowledge theory. Simon remains an education in himself as well as someone who critically transmits to us Aristotle and St. Thomas in the light of the various ways that they have been received, understood or, too often, misunderstood during the past hundred years.
The struggle for the modern mind is a real one. The slightest error in understanding what reality is about, as Gilson once said, following Aristotle and St. Thomas, will appear eventually in an increasingly distorted form down the ages when other thinkers take up, in yet more dangerous ways, an idea that really did not hold in the first place. When an age goes wrong, it is important to have a thinker who understood why the mistakes were being made in the light of a center that retains its own criteria and intellectual validity. Yves Simon, when we examine him carefully, can be for us this thinker who points directly to the center, to the first things, to the truths we would hold if we are to remain sane and honorable.
Yves Simon thus must first be seen as a teacher, who teaches us things we would not in all probability come across without him. Simon has some marvelous things to say about teaching and learning in A General Theory of Authority. He acknowledges that in the sphere of speculative truth, of how things are, not of what is to be done, authority is always substitutional, that, whenever possible, it ought to disappear in favor of argument and the clarity of knowledge. However, this result does not mean that authority is not helpful or often necessary for us to proceed in theoretical life and, more so, in the life of faith. Most of the things we do in our practical life, we do because of authority. Very few things do we work out for ourselves. We, most of us, do not know how engines work or how electrical door bells chime. It is enough for us to follow instructions, to let others know the design, the details. We take our automobiles to a mechanic even though, should we choose, we might ourselves go to engineering school to learn how to repair cars. When it comes down to it, both for convenience and for time, we would rather act on the truth of authority than not act at all until we learn, say, how the engine works or how the door bell rings. Life is too short not to trust many authorities. The very common good in which we dwell means that we can rely on others to know some speciality that we do not know but only take on authority, on the testimony of someone who knows.
When I read this book about authority with classes of mine, I always stop, with some emphasis, at the passage wherein Simon points out that there are, before any teacher, three kinds of students: 1) There are those students who are in the classes mainly for grades, for looking good on their record, who really do not care about the matter at hand. 2) Then we find those students who already know everything. Such students only have objections at class presentations. They are unwilling to allow other argument or experience to present a problem in the dimensions in which it is handed down to us and offered by the teacher. And finally, 3) we can find those students who are, to use Simon's felicitous phrase, "intelligently teachable", those who are capable and desirous of learning but do not know exactly how to approach their goal. Consequently, students can and do save much time and energy by having a good teacher show them the way. "Teachable minds," Simon adds, "have the privilege of understanding that a provisional belief is often the best, or the strictly indispensable way, to science". Authority thus is, for Simon, essential in practical matters but likewise of great usefulness and aid in speculative affairs where it only plays a substitutional role.
When the task of teaching is completed, however, the truth that is possessed is neither the private property of teacher or pupil, but it is some good, undoubtedly belonging to each, some common truth in which both teacher and pupil share because they both know. They both know not what they conjured up by way of creating their own free first principles but what is, what is given as the objects of their knowing powers. Our mind is capax omnium, yet it becomes all things only by actually knowing or by believing when that is the only way open to us. Friendship and love themselves depend upon agreement in truth, on our capacities to live in the same universe, to have the highest things in common and to know that we have them in common.
Though he does not write in the "Quaestiones" form of St. Thomas, we cannot help but be aware of the care that the French scholar takes in stating the position that he is disputing and clarifying. Simon is never prolix. The famous French logical "clarity" is second-nature to him. His order of thought and presentation is always obvious in manageable, coherent forms. Simon often needs to be read carefully again and again. Indeed, he is always worth reading again and again. Simon had a happy pedagogical facility of using vivid examples, of the particular instance in which the universal idea he was trying to elaborate existed, so that we could understand it and, in understanding it, remember it.
The very title of this book, as Anthony Simon tells us, comes from a passage in The Philosophy of Knowledge, in which Yves Simon remarked that "it is in the flux of a relation to sense qualities that (man) achieves his first acquaintance with the Absolute." Needless to say, this is a remarkable phrase since it reminds us that all things are somehow bound together, that the fact that we are finite mortals does not also mean that we have no contact, through our being finite, with the Absolute. We human beings will not find a way to the Absolute that does not begin and proceed through the particular things that we know.
Who can forget, to take an example of Simon's capacity to teach through particulars, through examples, his various illustrations of the need for authority, wherein he used the happy example of the large family who consider together their upcoming vacation. The family members are intelligent and prosperous, virtuous and considerate of one another. The members are asked to suggest a place to spend their vacation, while remembering that they are a family, that is, they want to be together. They have a common good. It turns out, not surprisingly, that ten different quite pleasant and exciting alternatives turn up. The family cannot go to every place suggested and do not want to go their separate ways. Thus, someone, an authority, needs to decide which one of the many good alternatives will be chosen. Once chosen, the members see that this is also a good choice and one that meets the requirements of being in a family.
Reason by itself, then, far from "proving" what alternative is the "best", only proves that all are good and desirable. As Simon points out in this model case, no lack of virtue or intelligence is to be found here. The more intelligent and the more virtuous we are, the more good selections there will be and, hence, the more we will need authority. Therefore, he concludes, in this one instance, at least, authority is essential, reasonable. We do not violate but fulfill our nature, our rational nature, by following this decision of authority. Authority thus does not, as such, arise out of sin or a lack or deficiency of some sort, though it may be called in to meet these situations also.
Now, in using such an example, a single instance, Simon makes clear a subtle, complicated point about a very specific problem that arises in political philosophy itself. He explains authority to us in his own way. He spells out for us just what Aristotle meant when he said that man is by nature a political animal, a rational animal who needs authority to achieve more fully what it is already given to be in reality. Of course, in characteristic thoroughness, Simon also notes the one limitation of his example; namely, that when everyone agrees, when there is unanimity, no authority is necessary. Simon, however, goes on to propose other examples and considerations to make his argument more clear, more definite, more to the point. But what I want to suggest here in the beginning is that reading Yves Simon, like reading Aristotle or Cicero, brings us before a philosopher who is a born teacher and who gives his students, his readers, the best sort of instances that enables them to grasp for themselves the intellectual point he is making. Such examples enable them to see that the philosophic point relates to their own experience.
Simon's uncanny capacity to relate speculative and practical philosophy, something touched upon in one way or another in each of the subsequent essays in this volume, can, again by way of example, be seen in his discussion of gift and of what we love when we love a person. Simon writes very beautifully on these profound topics. In examining experience, Simon simply denies that all things in us, including knowledge, arise from selfish or subjective motives, even though, to make another point, it is impossible that real goods do not in fact redound to our benefits. We cannot not wish for happiness, for this is what we are.
What does it mean, however, that something proceeds "by way of gift" and not by necessity, not by way of coercion?
Such disinterestedness, which concerns both the content and the ways of action, originates in rationality, but inasmuch as it implies the actual transcending of the self by itself, it is traceable, in strict appropriateness, to the way of subsisting and to the way of acting which belong to a complete substance of a rational nature. In short, it is traceable to the personality.
Here is recalled Boethius' famous definition of a person within a discussion of what it is we love when we love. The transcending of the self does not mean its destruction, but its completion. We are already in these reflections on the verge of the mystery of the Trinity as it is reflected in our personal and social lives. In the Trinity, the persons are relations, not somehow separate, autonomous entities. We are, each of us, created in the image of this very Trinity.
Simon thus wonders if it is some quality in the one loved that we rely on in our loving, say beauty, intelligence, or riches? These qualities are real and do call our attention to others of our kind. He points out, however, that, in what Aristotle called true friendship, that most profound of topics, it is the person that we seek, not merely the quality under which we first were drawn to our friend. The ultimate gift, paradoxically, is the gift of self, a gift that completes the self but does not destroy it. Friendship is between "person and person", not the qualities of the person. "The question of why one loves is best answered -- if this can be called an answer -- by pointing to what is unique and unutterable about a person." This observation enables Simon to distinguish between the "object" of love and its "grounds". The object of love is really the person, what cannot be repeated in the universe.
Again we can see the charm of Simon's metaphysics, if I can put it that way; we can see how the clarification of the truth of things relates to our own acts and understanding of what we are and how we are to live:
Let us see in what sense friendship can make itself independent of its own grounds. Indeed, the only thing that human love cannot do is create out of nothing the goodness, the desirability of its object. Divine love alone causes the beloved to be good, independent of any good antecedent to love. In order to be an object for the love of a creature, a thing must already be good: in that sense it is true that no one is loved or liked except for his qualities.
But notice what is the result of this acute analysis of what is the object of love for finite creatures. It is not that when the initial motive or quality of love ceases -- the example Simon uses is of a beautiful woman who loses her beauty because of small pox -- that love ceases. "Under the worst of circumstances the excellence of human nature, considered in actual existence and in relation to its end, would still be a ground for loving a person without measure." The particular good that is found in an individual person is itself likewise a good of society, of the capacity to acknowledge in each existing person the good that is actually there by virtue of its creation. The love "without measure" of the person furthermore grounds the stability of society by teaching us to understand why particular goods are themselves important.
A lively literature in political philosophy involves how Leo Strauss, one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, understood his own intellectual vocation. Was he primarily a secret writer who devoted himself to philosophical things so that he could protect the claims of Jerusalem, or was he a philosopher who chose Athens for the highest way of life? Was his quest for truth by reason alone, for the whole, undertaken because reason and revelation were unable to resolve the question about the highest form of life? What are we to make of the modern claim that the life of action, the political life, of statesmanship, was itself the highest form of thought? Would it not be better to be a statesman, perhaps a philosopher-king? I sensed in Raymond Dennehy's essay in this book some light on how Simon himself responded to these considerations by the way he led his own life, a philosophic life about practical things that itself led to metaphysics and indeed to revelation.
Strauss reviewed Simon's Philosophy of Democratic Government. Strauss' review is especially interesting in view of Strauss' own opinion that the best form of government, which Simon argues to be democracy, is, in Strauss' opinion, rarely, if ever, found in practice and if then, only as a result of historical accident, not political "science". Strauss admired Simon's book in many ways and recognized that the modern temptation to "escape into anti-social dreams," as Simon called it, into an arbitrary ideology imposed on reality by politics and the political mind, was real enough in modernity. Strauss points out, however, that Simon seems to have thought that he was contributing to a development of democratic theory that was in the line of St. Thomas, but was not adequately accounted for by either St. Thomas or by his early modern followers like Cajetan, Bellarmine, or Suarez.
The transmission theory, whereby the people are the origin of political order and rule, held that the people must transfer this original authority to a specific ruling body, whether monarchic, aristocratic, or popular. Simon wanted to argue that the transmission theory really meant that democracy was the natural form of political rule. Of this Strauss asks, "why this classical implication escaped the notice of the classical Thomistic writers" (p. 308)? Strauss does not find Simon's argument about the earlier moral environment of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to be persuasive. Simon seems to think that what made the understanding of democracy as the best form of rule come about was the improvement in economic or technological condition.
"I confess to a great reluctance to believe that 'our conscience has improved' on any important subject," Strauss observed in his review of Simon,
or that we understand great thinkers of the past better than they understood themselves. I am inclined to assume that the classics of Thomism have given sufficient thought to the transmission theory to bring out all its necessary implications. I would therefore regard it wise to assume that the democratic spirit is a possible, but not a necessary, development of the transmission theory, a development favored by extraneous or accidental circumstances.
By denying any real change in human nature and doubting the theory of progress by which some change in the actual human condition might have come about, Strauss notes that Simon was cautious to speak of possibilities, not necessary laws.
Strauss finds that Simon's treatment of technology parallels his treatment of democracy. Strauss is most careful, or "moderate", to use a favorite word of his. He thinks that Simon's argument for democracy as the best form of rule by nature needs qualification. Even when democracy is working in the best form that is theoretically proposed, it must be considered not the normal but a very rare and accidental thing. Political philosophy does well to be aware of the unusual conditions in which good forms of rule can exist. Thus, to expect too much of democracy could be dangerous in not preparing actual regimes for what they are most likely to face.
Charles N. R. McCoy likewise seems to have treated Simon's arguments for the natural superiority of democracy by nature with care. McCoy agreed with Strauss that direct democracy or pure democracy was not a natural form of rule. Rather it was the source or condition out of which any sort of rule arose. All good rule was intended for the good of all. But the form of rule had to be transferred by the prudential requirements of nature, that is, some definite and formal arrangement of authority was required. Simon, of course, seems to have argued precisely this point in his general theory of authority; that is, some positive body of rule needed to be selected, even if it was a democracy. Democracy still needed to be political, that is, it needed a formal structure to decide public issues.
McCoy wrote, in his memorable essay on "The Origin of Political Authority," that democracy was not a usual or normal form of rule, though it sometimes could happen. I will cite McCoy at length because he brings out the essence of the problem well:
It is interesting that Professor Yves Simon presented Bellarmine's theory as allowing that the respublica can manage political power for itself. The opposite opinion, he said, "does not seem to be borne out by (his) text" -- this despite the explicit statement that "since the respublica cannot exercise this power for itself, it is bound to transfer it to one person or a few." At the same time, Professor Simon admitted that "in all cases in which Bellarmine can think ... the duty to pursue the common good ... entails also the duty to put it in the hands of a distinct governing personnel...." (The Philosophy of Democratic Government [Chicago, 1951], 168.
If Bellarmine could not, as Simon acknowledged, think of any case in which the respublica can exercise political power for itself, how does Simon conclude that Bellarmine's theory allows for precisely that? It is, he told us, because "all that Bellarmine demonstrates is that the transmission of political power from the multitude to the distinct governing personnel is not a matter delivered to the free of the multitude when, as he put it, "the republic cannot exercise such power for itself" (ibid., 168; italics mine). But did Bellarmine put it quite that way? He said not "when" but "since" the republic, etc." "Since" it cannot, Bellarmine, of course, did not treat of the conceivable case when it could: Science does not treat of the accidental as such. Certainly it may be said that there is some conceivable case in which the respublica can exercise political power for itself -- this is simply the unnatural but possible case. Again we might recall Aristotle's definition of the natural as that which happens always or for the most part. That it is natural for the respublica to exercise political power for itself is explicitly denied by Bellarmine.
I bring up these somewhat obscure disputes about Simon's understanding of democracy and its philosophic grounding because the evolution of democracy seems seems to have been in the direction better described by Simon in his analysis of liberalism, as a philosophy allowing us to deny first principles of reason, than in his discussion of democracy as the most natural form of government.
Strauss and McCoy thought that Simon's analysis of democracy as the natural form of rule stood outside of the context of Bellarmine's classically-grounded insistence that democracy was not the normal or most obvious application of political principle. This difference does not mean that Simon thought that direct democracy, in the rare historical instances when it did exist, did not need to organize itself into a formal ruling body when it was deciding public business; he did think that it should have a formal organization whereby it could rule itself. The issue is rather that even though democracy might sometimes, though rarely, be a possible form of rule, it was an exceptional form of rule, not really natural. Simon was, of course, writing during a period in which democracy was a general term for mixed, limited government based on popular selection of rulers, themselves limited constitutionally and morally. Simon's discussion of a liberalism that no longer considered itself bound by first principles of reason or even by its own rules takes us closer to the sort of worry about democracy that we are finding today.
If we look at Simon's discussion of direct democracy in The Philosophy of Democratic Government, however, it is clear that he rejects any so-called Rousseauean "coach-driver" theory of democracy as at all a legitimate form of rule. He rejects this radical form because it does not allow a distinct governing personnel which is required by Simon's theory of authority and civil obedience. In examining Suarez, Simon does think that Suarez holds direct democracy to be a possible form of rule that does not require transmission of authority. However, even here, in Simon's view, democracy is subject to the requirement of a distinct governing body formally constituted. "Democracy never transmits the whole of transmissible powers," Simon affirms. "Every democracy remains, in varying degrees, a direct democracy."
The direct democracy that Simon sees in every democracy, nevertheless, is not one that somehow is rooted in a pure people's will thesis. Rather, it must be exercised in an organized way, formally constituted for governing purposes, for instance, in the election of leaders. As I read him, I do not think the concern that we find in Strauss and McCoy about Simon's misunderstanding the rarity of direct democracy is exact. When we examine the restrictions that Simon places on direct democracy, even when expressed in in republican forms, it is clear that he is close to the concern of Strauss and McCoy that actual governments have the obligation and authority actually to govern, even in their democratic aspects.
Let me cite two passages, one from the columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, the second from the Holy Father, passages that illustrate, I think, the essence of the concern that Strauss and McCoy thought they found in Simon's interpretation of the transmission theory as meaning in modern times that democracy was the "natural" form of rule. Georgie Anne Geyer wrote:
When they were designing America, the Founders drew a sobering distinction between our form of American representational democracy, where the people rule through the mediation of representatives, and what James Madison called "pure democracy," where the people supposedly rule directly. They concluded that "pure democracy" was too vulnerable to demagogues and characterized by cataclysmic shifts from anarchy to tyranny. Today we are already beginning to call pure democracy by its newer name, "direct democracy." One has to be incredulous that any candidate would be so callow or so ambitious as to seriously embrace or praise such a concept -- and even more astounded if the American people allow it.
These were also the concerns of Simon about the coach-driver theory of direct democracy that maintained that the sole purpose of government was not to rule but to fulfill the will of the people, no matter what it was.
And the Holy Father, who has mentioned the problems of modern democratic theory in many of his recent encyclicals, wrote to a Conference on Religion and Secularism:
Today however we would do well to consider another form of limitation on religious freedom, one which is more subtle than overt persecution. I am thinking here of the claim that a democratic society should relegate to the realm of private opinion its members' religious beliefs and the moral convictions which derive from faith. ... But if citizens are expected to leave aside their religious convictions when they take part in public life, does this not mean that society not only excludes the contribution of religion to its institutional life, but also promotes a culture which re-defines man as less than what he is? In particular, there are moral questions at the core of every great public issue. Should citizens whose moral judgements are informed by their religious beliefs be less welcome to express their most deeply held convictions? When that happens, is not democracy itself emptied of real meaning?
After the refounding of political rule after World War II, when Simon wrote, democracy in practice has not retained the sort of grounding in natural law and political philosophy that he had proposed. Rather a form of voluntarism subject to nothing but itself has more and more ominously characterized the democracies. Democracies have increasingly emptied themselves of any "real meaning", to use the Holy Father's term, and tended in the direction of the sort of direct democracy that Simon himself rejected most clearly in his analysis of Rousseau's political heritage.
That Yves Simon remains the excellent teacher and that his "pupils", if I might call them that, remain immanently teachable will be seen in each of the six essays in this volume. Russell Hittenger on law, Vukan Kuic on liberty, Robert Mulvaney on practical wisdom, Ralph Nelson on science, Raymond Dennehy on metaphysics, and John Kanasas on epistemology, each demonstrates in his tightly reasoned presentation how the intellectual guidance of Yves Simon persists as a vital starting point for many a good scholar looking for the truth of things. Not only does the variety of topic illustrate the wide range of Simon's own interests but it occasions opportunity further to clarify certain basic ideas or arguments that were left unclear or about which further scholarship can elaborate. What is striking in these essays, something I found surprising, is the degree to which we must consider Simon as a defender and articulator, not of the practical life, but of the speculative life.
This concern to connect Simon's renown in matters of practical reason with those of speculative philosophy thus seems to me to be what is behind Hittinger's careful elaboration of the place of eternal law in any full understanding of positive or natural law. This is a delicate question, no doubt. An error about what is ultimately at issue can lead to the most serious intellectual consequences, consequences that Hittinger notes in the case Justice Anthony Kennedy's position in the Casey decision wherein liberty means "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Simon's discussion of liberalism (in A General Theory of Authority) had already, as I have mentioned, anticipated such an almost incredible result that, when espoused, undermines any objective order or truth or rule.
For those who are Catholic, there is a triple irony here as this position of everyone defining his own philosophy was elaborated by a Catholic judge from a case involving a Catholic governor about an issue that is, as Hittinger shows, central to the natural law as developed in the Catholic tradition. Nothing better illustrates Gilson's remark about carrying error to its logical conclusion when left to itself than the Casey decision. We are fortunate to see a mind of Hittinger's caliber carefully spelling out the root of this problem within the tradition of Simon.
No doubt Simon is most noted for his work in clarifying the nature of practical reasoning. Vukan Kuic from the side of law and Robert Mulvaney from the side of the practical intellect itself have spelled out much of the central reasoning that Simon followed and that will help unify the thought that Simon devoted to this most significant topic. It is characteristic of the Aristotelian tradition to address itself to all phases of science, indeed to the very nature of science itself. No doubt most of the confusions in modernity about philosophy and revelation have some origin in current scientific theory. One of the great advantages of the French Thomist tradition was its willingness to address the nature and influence of science head on. Ralph Nelson's account of Simon's understanding of science presents a side of Simon that we might otherwise miss. No philosophical account of speculative or practical intellect in the Thomist tradition would be complete without considerable attention to the intellectual background to modern science. The presumption of some implicit or inescapable conflict is widespread. Nelson suggests how Simon approached this relationship and how science is itself to be related to the central tradition for which Simon stood so that science and philosophy are not in opposition but supportive of each other.
John Kanasas takes up another side of the problem of modern knowledge theory in his discussion of the tradition of realism. Kanasas' is the one essay in this series that attempts to analyze what could be Simon's mis-understanding of epistemology. This essay is useful both in itself and as an example of the way Simon can still teach through efforts of his students to save the truth in his original position. Raymond Dennehy's insightful essay on Simon's metaphysics in a way fits into all the other essays in this volume. In a highly original and perceptive essay, Dennehy has made nothing less than a spirited defense of the contemplative life in the very process of explaining why Simon devoted so much of his attention not to the theoretical life but to the practical life. In we recall that the old argument about the primacy of active or contemplative life is a controversy that recurs in differing forms throughout the history of philosophy, we will soon see the relevance of this particular discussion.
The ease with which good principles and ideas can slip into their opposite dangers, to conclude, brings us back to the subject matter of these various essays about the work of Yves Simon. The first line of political freedom is truth, the purpose of intelligence itself. Truth lies, as Simon implies, "in the souls of men". Each of these essays, in a particular way, make us aware that the practical intellect, the highest activity of which is politics, as Aristotle said, is itself rooted in the principles and reality of being itself, the object of our finite intelligence. What is remarkable about Yves Simon is the way he was able to carry a practical problem back to its proper theoretical root. Father Robert Sokolowski recently recalled the value of Simon's discussion of the useful place of authority even in speculative matters, of how the very principles of reason must themselves be protected and promoted by authority, ecclesiastical, academic, and political.
Simon's detailed concern with practical reason, art, technology, work, and science was itself something that led him to metaphysics. He realized that the common good must also be in our souls as a clearly understood and chosen truth that corresponded to the things that ought to be. The gift nature of reality, the abundance of reality that Simon saw to be also reflected in an economy and in human friendship, itself requires philosophical understanding. The essays in this book provide an introduction to and firm grasp of the highest things. The careful, clear reflections on Yves Simon that we see in these fine essays still stimulate and incite the good thinkers and "intelligently teachable" students we read here, men who manifest vividly to us the reward of reading Yves Simon.
ON THE MOST MYSTERIOUS OF THE VIRTUES:
THE POLITICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL MEANING OF OBEDIENCE
IN ST. THOMAS, ROUSSEAU, AND YVES SIMON
"If any one of you stands his ground when he can see how we administer justice and the rest of our public organization, we (the Laws of Athens) hold that by so doing he has in fact undertaken to do anything that we tell him; and we maintain that anyone who disobeys is guilty of doing wrong on three separate counts: first because we are his parents, and secondly because we are his guardians; and thirdly because, after promising obedience, he is neither obeying us nor persuading us to change our decisions if we are at fault in any way...."
-- Plato, Crito, #52.
"And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross."
-- Philippians, 2:8, (RSV).
Sometimes, as a kind of intellectual puzzle, I like to reflect on what are the most counter-cultural topics we can imagine. That is, what are the most outlandish positions that stand out against contemporary thought or practice? I do this imagining against the background of an old discussion within conservatism and liberalism about which Father Charles N. R. McCoy used to speak. McCoy maintained, along with Leo Strauss, that modern conservatism and liberalism were in fact two sides of the same intellectual coin. Both positions presupposed a modernity in which there were no intrinsic norms of nature or revelation against which to measure any ethical or political principle or practice. Conservatism, in this view that makes Burke as radical as Locke, maintained that long and established practice, whatever might be its natural law status, gave the presumption of rightness to any act or custom. Liberalism, on the other hand, defined itself over against whatever was held by long tradition or prescription, again in the Burkean sense of that term. To be free in the conservative sense meant to follow the wisdom of long standing practice and experience. To be free in the liberal sense meant to take a position against what was commonly established or held. The sign of freedom was not the intrinsic worth of choice or the dignity of a norm but the very act of going against what everyone else held.
In my version of this game, as it were, what I find to be the most counter-cultural positions, in contrast to either liberal or conservative views, are the truths of reason and revelation that are formative of our heritage and proposed as precisely true. Thus if one wants to be most singular or most odd, even, the way to do it is, say, to agree with John Paul II or with the Creed or with Aristotle and Cicero on the foundations of human living and right acting. I would add that if someone simply wants to be "orthodox" in the religious but professes this orthodoxy in what are in effect intellectually grounded liberal or conservative positions, his motivations or insights in the traditions of reason and revelation are most suspect because orthodoxy lies beyond either modern liberalism or conservatism.
One very minority candidate, that I have elsewhere proposed for the most counter-cultural position in modern life, is that of the worth and value of "the large family." Another outlandish contestant would be the view that agrees on scientific grounds with Julian Simon that the world is not in fact overpopulated and will be quite able to handle its population by sane and moral methods, even by the methods defined by the strictest Catholic standards. Yet a third position would be the one I want to discuss here, namely, that the most necessary virtue needed in the public and private orders is obedience. In proposing the topic of obedience, I had in my own formulation of this subject matter used the word "mysterious" of the virtue of obedience. I meant by that term that obedience had something, as it were, uncanny about it even when it could be explained well enough in reason alone. Yves Simon, in the "Introduction" to his A General Theory of Authority, had discussed the "bad name" that the correlative of obedience, that is, "authority", had in the modern world. Though authority's "bad name" was, I think, largely alleviated by the work of Simon, the bad name of "obedience", to which he also addressed himself, is not so well redeemed.
Recently, in connection with a course on natural law that I was doing, I had occasion to reread Alexander Passerin d'Entreves' book on that topic, a book that has just recently been reissued. d'Entreves praised the old natural law philosophers for being brave enough to discuss the relation of law and morals. Obviously, the two, law and morals, were related but were not exactly the same thing. The natural law theorists also established some "comparative independence of the law-giver" while at the same time elaborating "the inviolable rights of the individual conscience." Then d'Entreves concluded his observation with a sentence that has caused me much reflection and lies at the origin of these remarks on obedience. The natural law thinkers -- d'Entreves means the whole history of classical, medieval, and modern writers -- "were the first to analyze the complex interplay of legal and moral obligation, the mysterious process by which the truly honest man abides by the law and yet is free from its bondage."
In this one sentence, we find words that are mindful of Aquinas and of Luther, of Aristotle and even of Rousseau. What struck me especially in these words was the expression "mysterious process." Why would the process, by which an honest man observes the law and thereby be free of bondage, be called precisely "mysterious"? What is "mysterious" about it? The freest man, paradoxically, is, in this sense, the most obedient man. d'Entreves adds the "honest" man, the "truly" honest man, as if to say that abiding by the law is not fictitious. It involves no pretending or hypocrisy. The honest man will not be persuaded that he knows a truth that he does not. Nor will he deny that he is free when it looks to all the world like he is not. Nor does the word "mysterious" mean illogical or wholly unreasonable.
Obedience to the law and freedom from its bondage thus imply that the bondage of the law has a penal sense to it that was not original to law, as if, as Simon, along with Aquinas, said, we would have law even if we were not a fallen race. The difficulty of observing the law seems to repeat itself in each of us, just as the breaking of the law has consequences in spite of our being aware of these sane consequences. The subjective does not render the objective deed non-existent. The breaking of a good law by bad men is one sort of adventure. But the breaking of a bad law by good men may be even a more profound one. No one, however, can conceive of breaking one's own law, unless, of course, he is himself bound to a law that he did not make, unless, that is, pacta sunt servanda is itself not of his own making.
Our religious and philosophical literature rings with familiar words about a "virtue" that is hardly ever looked upon as a virtue, namely that of obedience. I mentioned Plato and St. Paul in the beginning. In the Old Testament, we find Samuel saying, "Yes, obedience is better than sacrifice" (1 Samuel 15:22). St. Thomas can even ask whether "Obedience Is the Highest (Maxima) of the Virtues?" (II-II. 104, 3). We wonder by contrast what is the contemporary reason for the unpopularity of both sacrifice and obedience? Does this unpopularity, objectively speaking, indicate something right or something wrong about modernity? Even the Irish bishops, apparently with approval of Rome, have simply dropped from liturgical readings the famous passage from Colossians (3:12-21) that reads "wives be obedient to your husbands". The principle of the integrity of and respect for the scriptural text is evidently obviated in the name of a presumably "higher" ideology, something itself, no doubt, cause for serious reflection about the nature of obedience. One wonders what will be removed next. We find a reluctance to acknowledge any moral obligation to obey any law unless, to follow Rousseau, we are ourselves its sole source of origin. Thomas Aquinas stated specifically, however, that we are obliged "in conscience" to obey just laws, that is, to obey norms of acting that we did not ourselves establish (I-II, 96, 4; II-II, 104, 6).
So, from the beginning, I will assume that the subject of obedience as some sort of defensible virtue is today a distinctly minority opinion. What we seek, as Rousseau said, in what still remains the modern mood, is a political theory whereby in obeying the law, we in fact obey only ourselves, or to cite Rousseau, "each, when united to his fellows, renders obedience to his own will, and remains as free as he was before" (Social Contract, I, 6). Even when we are "forced to be free", to use Rousseau's famous phrase, we are not obedient to any stable or natural law. We are only obeying ourselves. That is, we seek some way to rid ourselves of any trace of an objective meaning for obedience. Thus, we are immediately aware that, as in the curious case of loving ourselves, obeying ourselves is a distinctly paradoxical concept. Somehow both loving ourselves and obeying only ourselves miss the point of either loving or obeying, both of which have a distinctly "other" connotation to them even when they redound to our own happiness.
Most of us are aware that in the monastic tradition the three vows -- poverty, chastity, and obedience -- form the structure of community life, a life that is itself to be lived in obedience to the will of God. Ironically, these three vows are related to the shocking proposals in Book Five of The Republic, those of the communality of wives, children, property, under a civil order whose origin is not in the minds of the citizens but in that of the philosopher. The citizens of Plato's "city in speech", in other words, in fact, also obey. Generally speaking, if we read this monastic literature, whether it be in the "Rules of St. Benedict" or the "Letter on Obedience" of St. Ignatius of Loyola, obedience will often be presented as the most difficult and the most important of these three vows. The story is often recounted, from Cassian or St. Anthony, of the monk who is praised as a model of obedience for watering a dry stick at the command of his superior. Obedience is the one vow that goes most against what seems at first sight our integrity and autonomy, even, as in the case of the dry stick story, our common sense.
Yet, St. Thomas says, specifically, that "strictly speaking, the virtue of obedience, which, because of God, contemns our own will, is more praiseworthy than the other moral virtues, which contemn certain other (internal or external) goods because of God." At issue here is the Augustinian point that the ultimate locus of pride is in the human will as well as the Aristotelian point about the proper identification of human happiness. That is, in seeking to follow our own will over against any other norm, even that of God, we locate the most subtle and difficult of human disorders, that to which obedience in particular primarily addresses itself. This is why St. Thomas added that "the first sin of our first parent, from which sin emanated in all, was not disobedience, but pride, from which man proceeded to disobedience." The difficulty with obedience does have something to do with that principle of modernity that there is nothing at the basis of reality in nature or history except our own will, which is bound by no law but itself. Modernity, in this sense, is an aspect of the classical discussion of pride.
If we recall, moreover, what John Paul II said recently about the reason why he could not, as pope, ordain women to the priesthood, we will notice that his reason, in effect, was formulated in terms of a theory and practice of "faithful observance," of obedience. The constitution of the Church is not itself something the hierarchy of the Church can change or modify on its own authority. Its authority and its integrity are themselves a matter of obedience. There are things that do not fall under its competence; that is, there are things to which it must itself be faithful whether it sees the reasons for them or not. The "mysteriousness" of obedience, I think, has something to do with the fact that divine providence is rooted in God's reason in whatever He wills. God's will is not Occamist or Hobbesian. It cannot will contradictories. It is not pure arbitrariness.
In the case of the inability of the Church, on its own authority, to ordain women, John Paul II, after pointing out that the holiest of our kind was in fact a non-ordained woman, remarked, that this position "is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe." From the viewpoint of a theory of obedience, that passage, I think, indicates precisely obedience's non-arbitrariness. The Church's own obedience, whether it understands it or not, is to "a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe." For those who deny any such plan or any such order to the universe, of course, for those who hold that will is the sole source of law, this position will not be persuasive. But it does indicate that what is behind a theory of obedience is precisely an intelligible practical order, obedience to which is what leads to the right order of the good.
Clearly, in our tradition, a major reason why obedience plays such a prominent role is because of its central place in revelation, both in the Old Law and in the New Law. As a rule of the thumb, I would maintain that whenever some teaching or activity has such an important position in revelation, attention to it is cause for careful philosophic reflection. We are aware, no doubt, that what St. Ignatius called "blind obedience" has a distinctly bad name. Many would associate it with fanaticism, with all the worst in modern political and social life. It is supposedly a sign of lack of thinking for oneself, a lack of maturity and autonomy. Yet, in the monastic tradition, obedience is in some ways considered the ultimate test of virtue. And again, I would ask, if it is the ultimate test, what does the unpopularity of obedience reveal about ourselves such that the revelational tradition is so adamant about it? I mentioned in the beginning about finding a profound philosophical reason for the unpopularity of obedience or, what amounts to the same thing, for the uncommonly strong stress that the revelational tradition, especially for monks, places on obedience.
This profound philosophic reason, this cause of the unpopularity of obedience, must strike close to what is most potentially disordered in human life, or perhaps, at what most disorders human life. This is of course pride. If we read the account in Genesis of The Fall, it is clear that the source of sin as described there is precisely a claim for human autonomy which means not maturity but precisely "autonomy", self-rule, wherein the self also establishes the rules. The real anecdote for pride is not humility but obedience. Here is the rub. He who humbles himself will be exalted and he who exalts himself will be humbled. We find a paradox here that expresses a truth that seems just the opposite of the way we would expect it to be. Real freedom is found in obedience, while slavery is found in our own self-will.
I began these remarks with two passages, one from reason, one from revelation. The first is most famous to us because it forms a central part in the Trial of Socrates, still the fundamental tract in all political philosophy. We discover that obedience to the law forms a central theme of this drama, as it did in the Antigone of Sophocles in which we saw Antigone's obedience to the higher law putting her in conflict with the command of her uncle Creon who was, to give him credit, seeking to maintain the good of Thebes. We suddenly come up abruptly when we realize that the laws of God and the laws of the city can conflict. And when the laws of the city prevail, it is because the city has the power of the sword. It can kill the philosopher and the saint and the young Antigone. And if the saint and the philosopher are obedient to laws they did not make, the city suddenly finds that its most obvious tool is rendered doubtful and ungrounded when a higher law is witnessed to the very moment that the state takes the life of the philosopher or saint or Antigone. Socrates, if you will, argues philosophically that he should be obedient to the laws of Athens, even if they execute him. Yet, it is precisely his obedience to the laws that makes us wonder about which law he was observing, that of Athens or that of reason. Antigone, no doubt one of the most dramatic of all heroines, disobeys the law, a law some call divine, others call natural. Antigone argues, as it were, theologically against the obedience to the state in conflict with the laws of the gods about burying our dead. In both cases, it seems, that obedience is what leads to conflict, from which it leads to death and to judgment of the laws of the polis.
In the case of Christ, He is not presented to us as a philosopher, though, like Socrates, He comes into conflict with the laws of the the best existing polity. It is the existing polity, the Roman Empire itself, that legally executes Him. He does tell Pilate that he, Pilate, would have no authority over Him were it not given to him by His Father. His death is said to be the result of obedience to this same Father. Yet, we assume that His death is the result of the Roman Law with its own authority and purpose. This must mean that Pilate had authority of some sort, at least the authority of the sword. We do not normally think that we can deduce from this passage some sort of divine approval for the legitimacy of the Roman Conquests or the Roman legal system. On the other hand, the Roman legal system, with its terrible heritage of "majestas", of a sovereignty without limit, was appealed to and used by St. Paul as a legitimate way to protect himself and a guarantee of the justice of his own case. Paul used his Roman citizenship to prefer Roman to Jewish courts.
Not too many adults appear in scenes with Lucy, Charlie Brown, Linus, Sally, and their other friends. In an old sequence I happen to have, we see Lucy sitting on the floor in the front room of her house. She is playing with a teddy bear. Meanwhile, through the curtains comes a loud, "LUCY". To which she answers, "Yes, mother." In the next scene, Lucy's mother, whom we do not see, continues, to a rather why-bother-me? look on Lucy's face: "You left your coat on the floor again. Will you hang it up in the closet, please?" Lucy had not followed the house rules. She does not exactly strike out at her mother, the maker of these silly rules about hanging up coats, but we do see her walk defiantly into her room and stare at her coat on the floor, just where her mother said it would be. Finally, she poutingly picks up the coat and yells back, "Work! Work! Work! All I ever DO around this house is WORK!" (Fawcett. 1958). Thus, Lucy is supposed to pick up her coat. Doing this would interfere with her playing. Authority calls her to task. She begrudgingly obeys. She complains bitterly, but quite contrary to fact. She claims exemption from the rules because of her work. She seeks a reason for her disobedience. We laugh because of the disproportion we see between her playing and working. But what is important in her disobedience and in her subsequent obedience is her annoyance at having to be obedient. She preferred that her own will would be the sole criterion the use of her time.
Yves Simon is known for his careful analysis of the nature and functions of authority. The burden of his analysis was to show when authority was justified and also when it was merely helpful, though quite valuable for all that. He did not think that there was a necessary function for authority in the intellectual life, though he did think there was an amazingly strong case for its usefulness, both for learning and for example. The essential functions of authority were found in practical life, in things to be done or made. Simon found three functions for authority -- the substitutional function, the essential function, or unity of action, and the most essential function, the volition of the common good. Substitutional authority -- referring to the commandment of obedience to parents -- argued that children were always ruled rationally and for their own sakes. Parental authority was intrinsically destined to diminish and disappear. If our model of political authority is that of parental authority, we will expect that political authority ought to disappear, a distinctly non-Aristotelian or Thomist position.
Simon argued that authority was essential and necessary in two cases. The first was where a multiplicity of good choices required a selection to be made from among them by some distinct authority if a group or polity was to stay together. The most essential argument, the volition of the common good, materially considered, maintained the Aristotelian notion that for the whole to be the whole the parts had to be the parts. The only way the parts could be what they are, something that was itself necessary for the common good, would be for these parts to be defended and promoted by their own authority. Both the parts and the whole will the common good, but the parts are too busy taking care of their own goods to worry about the specifics of the common good. Authority's most essential function is to allow the parts to be the parts all the while seeking to decide the particular compromises or limits that must be made in order that other parts continue and flourish in themselves and within the whole..
It is in this context that the subject of obedience arises. That is, there are valid philosophical reasons, when we analyze authority, to see both its necessity and therefore, on the part of the ruled, their obligation to follow reasonable laws. The issue here does not concern immoral or unreasonable laws. Simon wanted to know if there was any special element in the notion of obedience itself that might suggest its mysteriousness. He had argued, from the Aristotelian theory of knowledge, that it was all right that we ourselves were not other things provided that we had knowledge of other things through their forms that made our being also through knowledge the being of another. Thus, it is all right to be a mere human being because all of what is can return to us in knowledge.
Simon's reflection on this point, I think, is of considerable profundity:
A thing which is not God cannot be except at the cost of not being what it is not. It cannot be except by being deprived of indefinitely many forms and perfections. To this situation, knowledge, according to St. Thomas' words, is a remedy, inasmuch as every knowing subject is able to have, over and above its own form, the forms of other things. This remedy is, so to say, complete in the case of intellectual knowledge, for intelligent beings can have the forms of all things and be all things spiritually, intentionally, transsubjectively, objectively.
This sort of knowledge implies the freedom to live in its truth. "The most desirable of all freedoms is the freedom to be all things, as becomes a faithful image of God," Simon added. Now this form of freedom is rather easily reduced or destroyed by moral and subjective factors. The problem or purpose of obedience comes in here: "Is there any way to assure the steady defeat of subjectivity in that elevated part of our being whose law is altogether one of transsubjective existence." St. Paul's awareness of the "other law" in his members impelling him to do what he "would not" seems to be the classic context of the problem Simon was considering.
Simon argues that obedience is what can more than anything assure this defeat of those contrary subjective elements that interfere with our knowing and following objectively what is. Thus whether the authority be that of parent to child or polis to citizen, obedience corresponds to the reasonableness of the law that is presented through the reason and will of the parent or authority. If obedience to the common good through law is followed, our own good is achieved because we see the reasonableness of the law in its making. Simon now asks, "whether, beyond the goals of common life, obedience by reason of its own nature, does something for the law-abiding citizen. The virtue of obedience implies that my own judgment is irrelevant in any normal relation of myself to authority."
Presumably, "any normal relation of myself to authority" in Simon's sense does not exactly mean that one's own judgment is exactly "irrelevant". Rather it means that a reasonable citizen or monk has already figured out why the habit of obedience in the case of already examined legitimate and reasonable authority can be followed with peace of mind. St. Thomas held that, by virtue of the New Law, we owe internal obedience -- we are not merely not to kill, but not to think of killing -- to God alone. Does that mean that our internal acts need no regulation since the human law can only deal with external acts? Obviously, they need regulation of some sort, a need that enabled St. Thomas to suggest why it might not be wholly contrary to reason to discover a revelation addressed precisely to law's and reason's own deficiencies or incapacities.
Simon found in these considerations the proper location of obedience in rational beings. Even though we cannot expect the state to judge our internal acts, from which all disorder comes, we still by divine law are to rule our thoughts from which evil actions ultimately come. The form of rule of ourselves must always be internal to our minds. This thought from which we initially rule the external acts that proceed from us, we are told, needs first to be ruled. But how? For Aquinas it is by obedience, not coercion. Simon's analysis is as follows: "The rule of obedience, which covers external acts also covers, by strict necessity, the judgment which is one with the exterior act inasmuch as it constitutes its form. This is an altogether practical judgment -- as practical indeed as action itself. On any other level than that of complete practicality, judgment is free from any duty of obedience to man." Obedience here does not mean that we should not seek to change a bad law or cease to think that the law is imperfect, if it is. What it does mean is that we rule our thoughts by obedience to what the law commands.
In this way the external act about which the law itself is primarily concerned will be reasonable and well-ordered. We want this end that our acts be just and reasonable to others. We decide to follow the means but to do this we have first to obey the law sufficiently in our minds actually to guide our external actions, under the command of our thought and command, along the right path in the world itself. Obedience is owed to man in these very narrow circumstances. Obedience does require a surrender of that part of the self which, after the manner of pride, thinks that there is no limit other than the self in the relation of a person's thought to his action. Obedience sufficiently strong to rule our external actions counter to our own self will will include, if we do not see the reasons, control or rule of our minds at least in that thought that guides our actions to follow the law..
"Whenever an act is done out of obedience," Simon has written to explain how law can in at least this instance imply a relation to our inner thoughts,
I will that any judgment and volition of mine should yield, if necessary, to the judgment and volition of those in charge of the common good.... The practical judgments, which are the forms of any exterior actions, also are acts of my mind and will, the rebellious moods of my subjectivity are curbed, and this happens voluntarily and freely. Whatever excellence is communicated in the exercise of authority uses ways of distinguished significance, for the ways of obedience are kept in order by a constant process of emancipation from the powers which threaten most profoundly my freedom to do what I please for the sake of the law, for the sake of the good, and for the sake of God.
Clearly, Simon is here at the heart of his argument about obedience.
In his analysis, Simon has located obedience as an aspect of authority's presentation of good laws. He had recognized that to do a good act, we must have our interior thoughts properly ordered, to will what is good in the particular as that good appears in a legitimate law. However, even assuming that God has commanded us to rule our thoughts, commanded us not to covet, we are still much subject to pride and opposing desires that will deflect us from the acts of the law. Obedience relies on the nature of the superior reasonableness of the good law over against those disturbing temptations and movements in our own soul that might at any time seem more suasive than the precept of the law itself. The law ultimately intends that we be good, though it does this through our performing good acts, the goodness of which are found in the law. Obedience to the law or authority, thus, takes the process one step backwards into our souls to touch the very freedom we have to see the good in a particular case, the case before the law, in this case.
This thesis of Simon, I think, needs to be considered in the light of John Finnis' positive inclination not to use the terminology of obedience but rather that of obligation. Finnis wants to argue that obedience is not directly to the will of God or of the superior. The reason for his problems with obedience is that will as such seems to have no content. The object of the will is not itself but the good as it is presented in reason. Finnis thus argues that St. Thomas places the notion of imperium that last command of the practical intellect guiding the formation of any law or rule -- "do this" -- in the reason, even though it may involve a factor of will to determine that this particular intellectual form will be the law. Finnis wants to argue, then, that when we "obey" the law, we are not submitting to the pure will of another, even of God. Rather we are recognizing a particular good and responding to that objective good that we both recognize by reason and choose or desire by our wills. In Finnis' position, we are thus not exactly "obedient" but rather we are "obliged" to the truth of the good that is presented to us. This good presented to our reason is something we can reject, to be sure, by the normal laws of selecting some other truth or proposition on which to base our actions. In itself, however, we are not so much "obedient" as reasonable. Finnis in his theory seeks to eliminate any implication of any notion of obedience that would involve obedience to the will of another, except through the complicated manner by which will presents a reasonable good..
Are Simon and Finnis at odds? Is it true that we do not obey the "will" of even God, but that we are rather obliged to the good as it appears in reason? In Finis, this issue involves the long argument beginning at least from Suarez about the primacy of will in legal matters. It involves, indeed, the whole problem of modern natural rights. Suarez in one sense seems to be at the origin of the notion of modern natural rights rooted in will, not reason. Finnis thus argues that obligation means that we should recognize the good that is presented to us in a law but that good is its form, its essence, its reason, not simply the will behind it. The will of the legislator, to be sure, has to decide which of the alternatives are to be followed. But the one obliged by the law is to follow the reason of the law, not the will that decided the reason.
Simon in his view of obedience is not so much concerned with the good or reason in the formulation of the law. The law is itself attractive to the reason because the law is itself also reasonable. The reason of the legislator speaks to the reason of the law observer. Simon is aware, however, of the tremendous pulls within the law observer that would deflect him from seeing or following the good in reason found in the law. For Simon, obedience is a protection from our own subjective moods and desires. These passions and tendencies are formidable especially if we see them, after the manner of St. Augustine, in terms of pride and self-will, rebellion against any rule not our own. In this sense, obedience is directed to that one intellectual form in the practical intellect that is needed that we might observe the law.
Even though God alone can rule our thoughts, still it is clear that if we are to observe the law ourselves, we must select that form within our minds that would enable the exterior act to come forth as something we recognize to be good and reasonable. Simon conceives obedience as that virtue that overcomes our subjectivity so that we can act well in each particular case. He is aware of the strength of the subjective forces within us and seeks to overcome them through obedience. Finnis, on the other hand, is concerned with the attractiveness of the good that is itself choiceworthy because it is true. That which draws us will be a particular good. We are obliged to follow it not because it is willed but because it is good, so willed and understood both by the lawgiver and those to whom the law is promulgated.
In conclusion, let me again recall The Crito. The Laws accuse Socrates. They protest that they did not see him trying to change any laws he thought were disordered. Socrates did, in the end, do what the Laws told him to do. Like Christ, he obeyed the laws of the polity that executed him. It is here where the very mysteriousness of obedience seems to come most to the fore. The arguments of both Finnis and Simon are ordered to the good law and the good citizen. It is not that they are unaware of or neglect the fact that most polities are disordered or that most of our souls are disordered. d'Entreves wanted to know "the mysterious process by which the truly honest man abides by the law and yet is free from its bondage." It was precisely this that Simon and Finnis, I think, endeavored to explain. The obedient man is free from bondage by observing the law because he remains rational in his obedience and because he rules his desires with the help of his obedience to keep him focused on what it is that he is to do. John Paul II spoke of "faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe."
Behind all of our efforts to seek the good rationally, even to obey the law in the light of the attraction of the good for its own sake, there is the mysterious obedience of Socrates and Christ both of which seem to overturn the accumulated wisdom of this world. That the enigma of these origins of reason and revelation would be, in one sense, based in obedience and humility over against pride and self-will is indeed uncanny and mysterious. The efforts of subsequent philosophers in the lines of Aquinas, Rousseau, Simon, and Finnis, among so many others, to penetrate deeper into the meaning of obedience, the mysterious virtue, brings us back to a will and a wisdom that indicate the good of our obligation to follow the good in the law itself depends on the good of being itself, brings us back finally "to a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe," itself an order, itself something that shows signs of law and hence of obedience.
ON LEISURE AND CULTURE
Why Human Things Exist and Why They Are “Unimportant”
Let me begin by citing two passages that graphically underscore the themes that I wish to consider here – the things of leisure and culture, of what is and its surprising origins. The first lines are from Gregory of Nazianzen, the great Eastern theologian:
What benefactor has enabled you to look out upon the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with states, with a life of humanity and culture, with friendship and the easy familiarity of kinship?
The second is from the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga:.
Real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. .... To be a sound culture-creating force this play-element must be pure. .
In each of these citations, we are admonished to do things that seem utterly useless, things not necessarily senseless, but still impractical.
Beholding the beauty of the sky or counting, as Gregory calls them, the “countless stars,” is really not good for much. No doubt, it can prod us to wonder why things are in this way, in this order, rather than some other arrangement. It might even impel us to send up a few space ships to have a look about. Yet, Gregory obviously thinks that what we gain from this contemplation of the heavens is well worth our efforts. And what’s this about civilization “always presupposing limitation and the mastery of self?” Surely Huizinga is being ironic?
Yet, the things of civilization are also mentioned – art, houses, harps, food, laws, and “the life of humanity and culture.” Gregory understands that these latter things, except for the rain, have a human component. But we still should wonder why we are said to be “blessed” with such humanly-fashioned things, almost as if they were “intended” for us to bring forth. They obviously refer us to a source not ourselves. We realize, at least implicitly, that we did not cause ourselves to be, to stand outside of nothingness. If cultural artifacts exist in some abundance, still they had to be brought forth by a being who had the capacity to create or develop them. But we did not give to ourselves this artistic or craft capacity to make or order things, any more than we created the beauty of the heavens or the countless stars.
In order that something higher might be achieved among us than just our essential being, we need to act. Rules and limitations, as Huizinga paradoxically tells us, therefore, need themselves to be discovered, formulated, and, more importantly, “freely accepted.” So our limitation and our freedom are not necessarily and always at loggerheads, as we are sometimes told. We need one for the other. Our freedom is directed to what is; we do not make or create either reality or our capacity of free will. To make a choice to have this thing is simultaneously to make a choice not to have that thing. We are only free to play the game if we agree to abide by its rules which limit us to play in the way the game is played. Otherwise, with no rules freely accepted, it is not a game and no one will play with us on any other terms. What the game is, its truth, limits our freedom to play it, that is, makes us free to play it because we accept the rules.
What is implied here is that our human life in the universe reveals something of this same structure, of knowing what we are, of learning the measure or rules of our being, of freely accepting them in order that we might be what we are intended to be, human beings, not toads or gods. We seem, by being what we are, as Plato taught us, to be ordered to “play” or to participate in some transcendent game or design whose rules we do not ourselves fashion. Huizinga also observes that civilization itself requires a sense of limit and self-mastery. We cannot play a game while changing its rules in the midst of the playing. We cannot create a human culture while changing the structure of what it is to be human. “Man does not make himself to be man,” as Aristotle told us. He is already man, not of his own making. This fact itself is cause, in our souls, of the most curious of self-reflection. What is the ground of our being if we are not? The very faculty by which we consider what we are is already present in us, almost as if to say that we are meant to reflect on how we could ever come to exist since we did not cause the sorts of beings we are to come to be in the first place.
Why do things exist rather than not exist? If precisely “nothing,” in the most literal sense of the word, ever once, as it were, “existed,” no thing would still “exist.” Ex nihilo, nihil fit – a most basic of first principles of being. Why, among the vast diversity of things that do exist, are there also human things, clearly different from non-human things both above us and below us on the scale of being? Why does the existence of human things include the capacity to know the other things that are? Why can we only know ourselves by first knowing something that is not ourselves? And are these things that exist, human and non-human things, “important?” Important to whom? To what? For what?
We like to agree with Aristotle that nothing is made “in vain,” especially ourselves. Yet, who or what might “need” us, or at least want us to be? Leisure and culture are the conditions and circumstances in which we try to respond to such questions. These are the things we do when, as I like to put it, all else is done. Our lives are not, and cannot be, exhausted in the necessary. Our being is not intended merely to keep us in existence as if just living were our highest good. We know the purpose of a doctor when we are sick, namely to restore us to health. But what if we are “healthy?” What are the activities of health that fill our days? Surely they do not consist merely in efforts to keep us alive. We would like to know the answers to questions about what is just because we would like to know, just because knowing itself is a delight..
At first sight at least, such sophisticated-sounding notions as leisure and culture seem relatively insignificant compared to making and acquiring the basic necessities of life -- food, clothing, shelter, economics, the production of things, war, trade. We are incessantly being urged by our churches, by our voluntary agencies, by our media to concern ourselves with the needy and the poor of various sorts. We sometimes wonder if this latter concern is not itself an escape from or avoidance of more fundamental questions. With so many things wrong or lacking in the world, in any case, why on earth, of all things, are we to be worried about “culture” and “leisure?”
Is not this leisure something we cannot “afford?” And “culture” comes from cultus, the notion that the highest things arise from ritual worship of the gods. Could anything be more fanciful? This same accusation, of course, was that which used to be leveled at believers by Epicureans, Marxists, and sundry militant atheist positions. The concern for the highest things, it was charged with some urgency, deflected us from those things that must be done for the good of the world. Culture, religion, leisure, worship were luxuries we cannot afford. It is because of them, it was charged, that the more “basic” things were neglected.
Yet, there are those, myself included, who suspect that if we do not concern ourselves with things that are not “necessary,” not “important,” we will never really get to those things that are commonly thought to be necessary in a worldly sense. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” At first sight, such an admonition, even with its scriptural authority, seems absurd. It advocates the wrong priority. If we first produce “all these things” by ourselves, we then can worry about the highest things in good time. They might be nice, but we can get along fine without them. Surely we can only worry about the Kingdom of God after we have enough material things. Then we can waste time on such fanciful questions for which no one has any clear answers anyhow.
None the less, Aristotle himself did tell us, in a famous passage, not to follow “those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but (we) must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything” (1177b31-78a2). Human things are political and economic things. While not to be neglected, they are not of highest importance. We must “strain” ourselves to seek the highest things. Aristotle clearly thinks that we can miss knowing what is important by concentrating merely on what we are in this world and its mortal activities.
We cannot, however, forget that haunting passage in The Brothers Karamazov in which we are warned that ultimately men would prefer bread to freedom. “For the mystery of man’s being,” we read in Dostoevsky, “is not only in living, but in what one lives for. Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if there is bread all around him.” Such are indeed somber, yet also hopeful, words in these days of rapid population decline in Europe and America, the effects of the culture of death. But these words remain apt commentary on the notion that man does not live by bread alone, a remark addressed to, of all people, the devil himself by Christ in the desert. The man who lives “by bread alone” is the man who lacks both culture and leisure.
To entitle, as I have, a book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, leaves one open to certain obvious charges of denigrating the ordinary affairs of men, affairs most people take to be precisely “serious,” the ones on which they spend the most time. While both accepting the validity of the point being made, the first two reviews that I saw of this book, both written fairly soon after September 11, 2001, mentioned in fact the paradox of a book suggesting that human affairs were “unserious” over against the obvious dangers and perils of a new war and numerous signs of cultural decay. The book was written before September 11, though it was not actually brought out until December of 2001. In the meantime, I had written a number of hawkish analyses of the current war against “terrorism,” as it is called, the general outlines of which I approved. I likewise agree that many signs exist of – again to use that pressing word -- “serious” civil decay, signs from rapid loss of population in the West, to the disorders in the family, to the legal reversal of many former sins so that they become “rights.”
But, to put things in perspective, I had come across C. S. Lewis’s famous lecture “Learning in Wartime,” given at Oxford in October of 1939, in which he said
The war creates no absolutely new situation. It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge until they were secure, the search wold never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.
From an eternal point of view, there seems to be little evidence that fewer love God in wartime than in peacetime. In fact, scripture itself seems to suggest that, in many ways, that times of prosperity and riches are more morally dangerous than times of want and poverty. Nothing suggests that the poor of this world reach eternal life proportionally less frequently than the rich. The old monastic literature seemed to be more concerned about the souls of monks in times of peace than in times of trial. Our sociological surveys likewise tell us that breakdowns in families, in society, in morality are much deeper in times of civilization and peace than in times of war when we are more likely to call upon the Lord, or at least see the need of some duty and honor.
But what about this notion of the “unseriousness of human affairs?” As I remind my friends, this title has a classical reference that any cultivated person should immediately recognize. It comes from a passage in the Seventh Book of Plato’s Laws. The context is one that is essential for us to understand. Plato does not think that political and economic affairs are worth nothing. He grants then “a certain importance.” He is aware that much of our time and energy is spent on them. But he asks of their relative importance not in light of themselves but in light of something more fascinating and absorbing. If we realize that Plato tells us what is in fact “serious,” we will better understand what he means when he tells us that our human affairs are “unserious.” What is serious, of course, is God.
Yet, in Plato there is nothing of the idea of “obligation” or “duty,” as we often think of our relation to God. Everything is rather a spontaneous reaction to the beholding of what is beautiful. The commandments themselves of course tell us to keep holy the Sabbath Day. They identify the Lord, our God. But revelation does not replace Plato’s main point here, rather it reinforces it. If we are admonished to keep holy the Sabbath or not to take the name of the Lord in vain, we are not to think that obeying such admonitions is the essence of what revelation is telling us. We human beings are easily distracted, both to ourselves, and to our own affairs.
The first three commandments of the Decalogue point not to ourselves, but to God. And our relation to God, as Plato intimated, is one rather closer to play than to work. It is one of those things that are “for its own sake” and not for anything we might receive. Josef Pieper put it well in his classic book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture: “And as it is written in the Scripture, God saw, when ‘he rested from all the works that He had made’ that everything was good, very good (Genesis 1:31), just so the leisure of man includes within itself a celebratory, approving, lingering, gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation.” Not only does God delight in His creation, but His creation is to delight in what exists. Human sin, in this sense, might well be called the “disappointment of God” in the creatures not delighting both in God and in what He has made.
The point that we are to respond both to creation and to God not after the manner of need but of true delight is a delicate one. It is bound up with the very idea that God is complete in Himself, that He need not create anything, that if anything besides God does exist, it does not change God.. We exist then not out of a need God had for anything, as if He lacked something, but out of His superabundance. And if God alone is “serious,” it can only mean that He does not lack anything including our praise or worship. Yet, this is why we exist. We are the creatures who exist to acknowledge in the universe the glory of God in itself, for its own sake. The completion of the universe in some sense includes this chance that the free creature will recognize what is not himself, will recognize God and respond to Him simply because of what He is
The difference between ourselves and Plato is largely due to the fact that, with revelation, we have been given the proper way to express an appropriate worship of God. This is what the Mass is all about. It is that worship for its own sake because of the Incarnate God who offers this Sacrifice in our name, in our presence. Moreover, the word “serious” when applied to God does not imply a lack of delight and joy. It is in fact to be surrounded by music and song. But also it implies an accurate knowledge of God. Our worship has and must have an intellectual component. This is why the Church insists that we recite the Creed each Sunday, the Creed which begins “Credo in unum Deum....” “I believe.”
The two words “leisure” and “culture” have curious meanings and origins. There is a famous discussion in Aristotle about health and the activities of health. He asks, in effect, what is the difference between what a doctor does and what a healthy man does? The point can be made indirectly. When a man is not healthy, he sees the doctor to help him become healthy. The doctor does not decide what it is to be healthy. But beginning from not being healthy, he decides how to restore us to health. Once we are restored to health, we have no desire or need to see the doctor, ever again. So the activity of the doctor has a natural limit or purpose, namely, what it is to be healthy, something the doctor does not constitute but only serves. If a doctor wonders about whether he should aid us in becoming healthy, he ceases to be ruled by the end of medicine and becomes a danger to all of us.
But once I am healthy, what do I do? What are the “activities” of health? We can only answer such a question by knowing what we are. The specialist in what to do once we are healthy is not the doctor. True, we can exercise, diet, brush our teeth daily in order to remain healthy, but these are not the activities of health. In short, all those activities or professions that are primarily geared to keeping us healthy or in being, worthy as they are, are not what we are for. I revert back to the word “strain” that Aristotle used when he told us to use every faculty we had to know as much as we could about the highest things, about what is, even if it be little.
What is leisure about? Essentially, it is about knowing, and knowing the truth, “to know of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not,” to cite Plato. In an old Peanuts, We see Charlie on the mound. He is earnestly looking at Lucy wearing what looks like an oversized baseball cap. She tells him, “Does this look all right? I’ve got the ball under my cap. I’m pulling the old hidden ball trick!” As Lucy walks away, we see Charlie on the mound yelling at Lucy who has a frown on her face, “How are we going to start the game if you have the ball under your cap?” In the final scene, Lucy turns around angrily to holler back at Charlie, “Do I have to think of everything?” I suppose the proper answer to this exasperated question of Lucy is, “No, but you can think of anything.” This is precisely the Aristotelian definition of intellect: the capacity to know all things, to know what is. But it is not necessary that we think of everything, but we can, we have the capacity to do so. What we lack is time and opportunity – which just may be why we are given eternal life. “Thinking of everything,” especially the highest things, is precisely what we are about, even in this world.
But we are not just “thinking machines,” not just disembodied spirits. Every truth can have a reflection in our world, in this world within our own minds. We often forget that there is a pleasure also in just knowing, for no other reason than that we want to know something, to know its truth. We are indeed the lowest of the spiritual beings; we have to know first by knowing through material things. But we do know this way. And out knowing of things not ourselves is part of the “redemption,” as it were, of those things that have no intelligence, and even more so of those that do. We want to know most of all other persons, other spiritual beings precisely in their inner souls. We have a suspicion that we do not fully “exist” until we too are fully “known.”.
Thus if our affairs are “unserious,” if God could do without us, how do we go about thinking of those dire threats against living improperly that seem to come from revelation itself? Indeed, they even come from Plato. God, if I might put it that way, seems to be in the situation of someone trying to enable or encourage someone to enjoy the very best thing possible or even imaginable. But no matter what He does, the other person will not accept what is offered. And the only way the latter can have this gift is if he freely accept it. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy,
to a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.
However we construe it, and adventure it is, if we refuse the gift that is offered freely to us, we must live with that refusal. And in this case, God could not give us His life unless we freely chose it. There is no datur tertium, no way to accept what it is unwillingly.
Yet, even our taking ourselves seriously is suffused with laughter. I once came across the following item in a book called Poor H. Allen Smith’s Almanac. John XXIII is reported to have said that “it often happens that I wake at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.” We would be in a terrible fix, I suspect, if our popes did not have some sense of the unseriousness of even their serious lives.
The subtitle of these reflections is “why human things exist? and why they are ‘unimportant.’” Human things exist but not of their own making. The cultural things that are of human making presuppose beings that did not make themselves. Human beings exist out of a superabundance of God who need not have created them. They are thus “unimportant” in comparison to their cause. But they are precisely human beings. This means they are beings with hands, passions, brains, and free wills. God deals with them according to what they are.
If I give a gift to someone I love, I do not want that gift to command or coerce the elation of the receiver. Rather, I want the receiver really to delight in the gift and in the fact that I gave it. Joy is the delight in having what we love. Our unimportance in once sense means that we take a chance in our givings. We do not know what someone will make of our beautiful gift, and a pari of ourselves. It means nothing to us, but disappointment, if we receive back an artificial or strained thanks. We want the thanks to be really from the freedom and understanding, from the being of our love.
If we say that we want to know certain things not for our sakes but “for their own sakes,” it means that we can actually behold the existence and beauty of something, respond to it because we really know what it is. Paradoxically, in the background of this consideration is Augustine’s reminder that we are made for God from the beginning and that we cannot cease until we discover the rest for which we were intended. Yet, this is said not to depreciate or minimize the beauty of the things that are not God.
Cultus and skole, culture and leisure mean that we accomplish the highest purpose in creation not in necessity or in obligation, but in delight and freedom. What we really want is what is given to us. God, for his own part, does not want our praise because He commands it. He wants it because we see that what God is, is indeed lovely, worth our awe. What we create in our human way, in our leisure and culture ought primarily to arise out of this initial realization. The world is only complete when finite beauty is the free response to divine beauty. Only God is “serious,” Plato told us. All else is “unserious.” But the seriousness that is God can only mean that He prefers that we love Him for His own sake, for the sake of His beauty, because we “see” it, delight in it, after the manner in which it is given to us, as a grace which we can chose not to accept. Without this possibility of refusal, there would be no adventure, human or divine.
ON THE SUM TOTAL OF HUMAN HAPPINESS
“I (Boswell) mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson. ‘There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible..’”
“The perfection of each individual thing considered in itself is imperfect, being a part of the perfection of the entire universe, which arises from the sum total of the perfections of all individual things. And so, in order that there might be some remedy for this imperfection, another kind of perfection is to be found in created things. It consists in this: that the perfection belonging to one thing, is found in another. This is the perfection of the knower insofar as he knows.... Hence, as it is said in On the Soul III that the soul is in a certain way all things since its nature is such that it can know all things. In this way it is possible for the perfection of the entire universe to exist in one thing. The ultimate perfection achievable by the soul, then, according to the philosophers, is to have inscribed in it the entire order and causes of the universe. And they also held that this is to be the ultimate end of man. [We, however, hold that it consists in the vision of God, for, as Gregory says, ‘What is there that they do not see, who see Him Who sees all things?’]”
– Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, 2, 2.
“Knowing is the creature’s best chance to overcome the law of nonbeing, the wretchedness
inflicted upon it by the real diversity of ‘that which is’ and ‘to be.’ A thing which is not God cannot be except at the cost of not being what it is not. It cannot be except by being deprived of indefinitely many forms and perfections. To this situation knowledge, according to St. Thomas’s words, is a remedy, inasmuch as every knowing subject is able to have, over and above its own forms, the form of other things.”
The most famous book that talks to us of precisely “human” happiness, the proper happiness of man in so far as he is man in this world, is, no doubt, Aristotle’s Ethics. Here he tells us, as if looking into our own souls in our own time, that everything we do, all the particular, singular things in which our actions exist and which constitute the outlines of our lives, we do because we seek to be happy by the doing of these actions. This seeking to be happy in each particular act is what unites all the things that do exist in so far as they are touched by human minds and hands. All human beings reveal the same curious variety of longings in their origins. The world, in other words, is full of things that came to be because someone sought to be happy and did something to attain this purpose, albeit not always the right thing or the best thing..
Aristotle next explains to us that we can have differing ideas of that in which this happiness consists, but even here, the general diversity is not so great when we come to examine it. The great variations that seem at first sight evident in human searchings can be subsumed under four general headings. Some think that happiness is money, some pleasure, some honor or power, and still others think it consists in human contemplation of truth, of knowing the things that are. Happiness, Aristotle tells us; is an activity, it is an activity of our highest faculties on the highest objects in a complete life, but it does not exclude any activity’s worth nor does it deny the wide diversity of human things, good and bad, that occurs as a result of this seeking.
At first sight, this explanation will sound very exalted, perhaps abstract. Moreover, it seems odd, as the classical writers maintained, to claim that only a few philosophers can, in the proper sense, be happy, since most folks most of the time seem to be off pursuing money, honors, or pleasures, all good things in a way, but not the highest things. But in attributing this more perfect happiness to a few philosophers, the classical writers were merely going by what they observed. Yet, we wonder about ordinary things, the small things in the overall order of things, the things that we attribute to everyone, even philosophers, in their normal lives.
In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, after the fellowship is broken, the dwarf Gimli complains to Aragorn, the Strider, that the Lady Galadriel had not given them the same magic light that she had given to Frodo. Aragorn replies that it is more needed by Frodo for his is the main Quest concerning the first ring. Then Aragorn adds, “ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time.” Here, as it were, I am concerned as much about the “small matters” as about “the great deeds.” At times, I think the small matters are much more difficult to explain than the great deeds, though the central issue is how we have deeds, great or small, to explain. And though it is implied that by Aragorn that there is a difference between great things and small things, we get the distinct impression that the small things are still of great importance.
The classical reflections on happiness as our highest end seem, at first sight at least, to leave aside much of what actually happens to us, the small things, if you will. Our lives are filled with a myriad of differing activities and deeds. We see, hear, encounter many, many things, strange things. We forget how easily the familiar things once appeared to be strange to us. We tend to forget their strangeness because we have become familiar with them. Even Aristotle said that we can spend little time on the highest things, though we should spend as much time as we can on them. Many things “have” to be done that we would just as soon, if we could, avoid -- from brushing our teeth to mowing our lawns to locking our houses at night. Surely, we do not want to be snobs or elitists, to develop a philosophy of only the “highest things.” The Lord told us to “behold the lilies of the field, how they grow.” He did not tell us to learn how to use fertilizer or how to irrigate to improve plant growth or yield. Pioneer Hybrids and de Kalb had to figure this latter out by themselves.
This encouragement to pay attention to the beauty of the simple things that grow -- we could say the same of apple trees, or little kittens, as we do of the lilies of the field – seems to be part of the purpose of revelation, as if to say, in principle at least, that to miss anything on the way to knowing all that is turns out to be a mistake. Chesterton once remarked that “there is no such thing as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” He hints here that what is brought out of nothingness, just any particular thing, is itself somehow related to what can cause existence in the first place. All things are unified in this common origin. Sometimes we also hear that we should seek the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, the highest thing, and we should.
But what I want to suggest here is that we should also look to and wonder about the infinity of things that are quite unnecessary, however glorious or interesting they might be. One of the most remarkable things about creation, besides the fact that it is at all, is the number of apparently unnecessary things in it, almost as if our origins are not at all in parsimony but in an abundance that we are almost loathe to admit. We can almost reverse Occam’s famous razor which maintained that entia non sunt multiplicanda nisi per necessitatem – beings are not to be multiplied unless by necessity. The fact is, things are indeed multiplied almost as if necessity had nothing to do with it. And yet this abundance, even in its incredible particularity, seems to relate to us, to our power of knowing and appreciating. Our mind is called by Aristotle the faculty that is capax omnium, a definition about which we do well to reflect with great astonishment. Its very purpose or power relates us to all that is.
The expression, “the sum total of human happiness,” stands in contrast to “the sum total of human misery.” We presume that one counterbalances or even overcomes the other. And we are not naive enough, unobservant enough, to deny the reality of human misery, itself something that we can know or know about, something present to us. The “great art of life,” Samuel Johnson tells us, is to have as much happiness and as little misery as possible. Johnson recognizes that, very often, our happiness exists, paradoxically, in the “little” things. And even if he calls man himself “so little a creature,” it is because although most lives are unknown to most of the world, still they are lives, still worth living. We are not gods; it is not our destiny to become some other kind of a being besides the specific human being that we are. It is all right, in other words, to be what we are.
In this great art of life, Johnson affirms that small happinesses count, while little miseries hurt. This observation implies that if we be not content in small things, we may likewise miss any contentment in the great ones. No life is composed only of “great things.” Small things likewise lead to all things. The explanation of the existence of small things is, be it noted, as mysterious as the existence of the great things -- both have their origins in what is. The “micro” universe is as difficult to explain as the “macro” universe, though, be it noted, we attempt to do both.
Neither happiness nor misery, moreover, can belong to anyone other than an individual person. We find many existing persons, many kinds of activities in which happiness or misery might be thought to exist. The “greatest happiness to the greatest numbers” is, at first sight, a similar and familiar phrase, yet one fraught with danger. No “greatest” collective being exists to whom we might attribute this “greatest happiness.” The universe is so created that happiness is spread out into billions and billions of particular beings who can know it, seek it as properly their own. Happiness does not float around ungrounded outside of particular persons, however much they might be related to one another in justice, love, or friendship. And this “greatest happiness,” by some perverse calculations, might be achieved at the expense of the misery of others who do not compose the greatest numbers. The subject that bears happiness or misery is always the individual person in whom the drama of existence is centered.
But no doubt, if we be sane, we want many, not just ourselves, to be happy. Likewise, we want few to be miserable. There is such a thing as sacrificial suffering, but it too is rooted in what, in principle, ought not to be. Yet, part of happiness is in learning how to live through our miseries, or at least to know how misery is related to happiness. In some obscure sense, our miseries also teach us about our happiness. No life will be happiness-guaranteed or misery-free. The “sum total of human happiness” must include little things as well as great things. Human happiness does not simply consist in the “great” things, however much it includes them also. Everything about human life has something of significance attached to it because all that is contains something of interest, something the human mind can know. The “sum total of human happiness” is directly related to the fact that all things are good, almost as if that very affirmation is a challenge for us to find it.
But the “sum total of human happiness” remains a curious expression none the less. Happiness, we are told by the philosophers, is an activity. Indeed it is an activity of all our capacities on their proper objects. And that about which we are active always reaches to something not ourselves. We are self-insufficient when it comes to our own happiness, as we are self-insufficient when it comes to knowing. While we might want ourselves to be happy, our happiness does not consist in only ourselves. “Man as he is constituted, endowed as he is with a thirst for happiness,” Josef Pieper has written,
cannot have his thirst quenched in the finite realm; and if he thinks or behaves as if that were possible, he is misunderstanding himself, he is acting contrary to his own nature. The whole world would not suffice this “natural” nature of man. If the whole world were given to him, he would have to say, and would say: It is too little. Too little, that is, to “gratify entirely the power of desire,” or in other words, too little to make him happy.
This again is the contrast between the one thing necessary and all the other things. In desiring the one thing necessary, the highest things, we do not on that account cease to be interested in the things that in their being are not necessary. They too have a wonder.
One famous definition of hell, indeed, is that hell is to be with ourselves alone with nothing else, forever -- a terrifying thought. The highest activity ought not to be, though it can be, in opposition to the lowest activity. There is an order of things. Our being displays or calls forth a harmony of higher and lower that still must be produced in each life. This “calling forth” is indeed what constitutes the drama of each life. Whatever is proper to man belongs to him for what he is. Though there be a diversity of parts and capacities in man, still he is a one, a single being in which this diversity has an order to an end. He is a whole and as such he confronts all that is, all that is not himself, all indeed that is himself..
Moreover, as man discovers soon enough, each of his given and proper activities has its own pleasure that is present within the activity, both to encourage us to do the activity and to complete it. The perfection of an activity in a way includes, but is not identical with, its accompanying pleasure. In pleasure there is an abundance and in knowledge there is a superabundance of activity. We can often, at least in intention, separate an activity’s purpose from the pleasure that accompanies it. The fact that we can make this separation is one of the reasons why we can err or sin in our activities. We can argue ourselves into following the logic of pleasure and not the logic of the activity’s true purpose. But it is not intended to be this way. We are not stoics who think that we must overcome all pleasure or pain in the name of duty. We are rather Aristoteleans who think that we must find the purpose of any activity and enjoy the pleasure that naturally accompanies it when it is done properly. These considerations are important if we are to approach the meaning of the sum total of human happiness.
We can postulate initially that no one will ever experience in himself the “sum total of human happiness,” no matter how happy he may be. Yet, we can also postulate that every kind of activity and pleasure is presented in our being. We are a microcosmos in which all levels of being, mineral, vegetative, animal, and sprit exist in us, by nature. Nor does this approach deny the question of what is the highest happiness. Happiness is the activity of the highest faculty on the highest object in a complete life, to repeat Aristotle’s definition of it. On the objective side, we need to know as best we can just what is this object to which our highest faculty is ordained. We need to have some estimate about what this object, that is not ourselves, might be. This is why we are given intellect, and with it, philosophy, the quest to know what is. This too is why we are given revelation. It is interesting to notice that one of the reasons St. Thomas gives for the possibility that God did in fact reveal things to us is precisely that we might know this highest object in a way much more detailed than we might otherwise know it, though we can know of it in some sense from reason (I-II, 91, 4).
“During this interview at Ashbourne, (September 23, 1777),” Boswell wrote, “Johnson and I frequently talked with wonderful pleasure of mere trifles which had occurred in our tour to the Hebrides; for it had left a most agreeable and lasting impression upon his mind.” Everything that is, that exists, I think, is designed ultimately to leave “a most agreeable and lasting impression” on our minds. Some of the greatest pleasures in things consists in remembering them, almost as if all things have second existences, first what they are, then our recollections of them. Moreover, the limitation of our lives, their time spans of seventy years and “eighty if we are strong,” as the Psalm puts it, makes us realize that talking of the “wonderful pleasure of mere trifles” is limited ultimately not by the trifles or by the wonder but because of our own time span, almost as if to say that there is something lacking in our very memories, or perhaps in the expanse of our time, that requires fulfilment.
Those who are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy are aware, of course, that these novels were not really space fiction but theological considerations on the nature of man in the universe. Several people from Lord Acton to Douglas McArthur and Henry Cardinal Manning are said to have remarked that, “at bottom, all political problems are theological.” I suspect that this aphorism is in some sense true also of not only space fiction but of space exploration itself. Stanley Jaki has summed up what has come to be known as the “anthropomorphic principle”: “The physical universe is indeed so lucid in its consistent workings as to suggest that it was tailored from the very start in such a specific way as to call for the eventual rise of man.” The shocking thing about the universe is not its size or time but its particularity, its “intelligent design,” as it is called. If this be true, reality is rather more “fictitious” than fiction itself. The human race’s “purpose” was evidently there from the beginning, as Genesis itself suggests. For it intimates that far from being an “accident,” man was indeed “intended” in the very structure of the cosmos. There was a reason for him to exist that not merely added something to the cosmos itself, but explained the universe to itself, as if it were not sufficient for God to have explained it to Himself.
And yet, neither the cosmos nor man was created simply “for itself,” but that both might “return” to what brought them forth. When St. Thomas begins the Prima Secundae of his Summa Theologiae, he talks of how the things that originally proceed from God, of which he spoke in the Prima Pars, return to their origin. He distinguishes those brings that have intelligence and will from those which do not. Only these former can return to God in any proper sense, and hence all other things return through the rational creatures because these latter have the capacity to know being, to know what is. Human happiness, then, is no small thing if its very end is the vision of the divine essence and this as a gift. This highest end almost makes it seem superfluous to talk of anything but God. And yet, what we emphasize here are the “small things” – the “other things on the face of the earth,” as St. Ignatius called them – in the light of what is indeed the completion of our happiness.
If we read St. Thomas carefully about just what it is that finally defines our happiness, we will be surprised to notice how he describes the human being who in fact can know “whether God exists,” even though he may not be fully sure what God is. With the help of revelation, St. Thomas knows that our happiness consists in seeing God “face to face.” Stated philosophically, it means that we seek the face of the first cause that explains finite things, including ourselves. Here is how St. Thomas puts it:
“Intellectus humanus, cognoscens essentiam alicuius effectus creati, non cognoscat de Deo nisi an est; nondum perfectio eius attingit simpliciter ad causam primam, sed remanet ei adhuc naturale desiderium inquirendi causam. Unde nondum est perfecte beatus. Ad perfectam igitur beatitudinem requiritur quod intellectus pertingat ad ipsam essentiam primae causae. Et sic perfectionem suam habebit per unionem ad Deum sicut ad objectum, in quo solo beatitudo hominis consistet....” (I-II, 3, 8).
The human mind, then, does not know God directly. Knowing that created things are limited and not caused by themselves, the human intellect can know “whether” God exists, that is, that created things cannot cause or explain themselves. Knowing this, however, is perplexing. It is a cause of added unsettlement or intense curiosity. What about the nature of this “first cause?” Once being aware that something is there, it is impossible to rest content simply by knowing that such a cause exists. Yet, how this “union with God” might be possible is not available to the unaided human reason. But nothing is created in vain so that we should expect or anticipate or at least recognized once it is given, a solution, even if it does not arise from our own powers.
“But God does not do things by halves. He wanted to provide his creation with an image of His infinity,” Yves Simon has written.
He wanted certain creatures at least, in very unequal degrees to be sure but always on an admirable scale, to be infinite in some way, as He is infinite in all ways. But since every creature as it emerges from nothingness is reduced to the measure of its nature, and essentially limited to it, what was left to do was to endow the universe with a certain superabundance that allows privileged creatures to overcome their natural limitations – and even approach a kind of relative infinity – by being able to become in a sense all things. It is this superabundance of creation that makes things spill over into, or, better, radiate ideas. The universe of nature so generously created is at the same time the universe of intentionality, and that is how we are able to know it, and in knowing it imitate the divine infinity.
This passage from Simon is remarkable. What I am interested in here is not so much that man’s final end consists in the vision of God face to face, but what is implied by this vision. Some religions or philosophies literally even want to absorb all individual beings into the Godhead, as if there is, in the end, only God. At first sight, it might seem that the knowledge of God absorbs all other interests into itself so that nothing else is needed. And yes, nothing else is needed. Solus Deus. Nevertheless, there is something “superabundant” about everything in creation, as if it is made both to be and to be known.
Chesterton, I think, captures the essence of what is at issue here in his book on St. Thomas. The remarkable thing about Christian revelation, Chesterton intimates, is not so much that it is concerned with God, but that God is concerned with everything He creates and so ought we to be. This means that nothing is without interest both in itself and to us. Here is how Chesterton put it:
He (St. Thomas) was not a person who wanted nothing; and he was a person who was enormously interested in everything. His answer is not so inevitable or simple as some may suppose. As compared with many other saints, and many other philosophers, he was avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things. It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are Things, and not only the Thing; that the many existed as well as the One.
There really are things, and not just “the Thing.” It is utterly distorted to want “nothing.” We should be “enormously interested in everything.” We should hunger and thirst after things. The many things did exist. The sum total of human happiness is located in these principles, in the little things that are there to be known precisely by us.
In this context, let me recall a passage from one of his Sermons, Pope St. Leo the Great observed:
Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creature a fitting expression of its gratitude.
The intelligent creature is to give a “fitting expression of its gratitude.” For what? For precisely the reality and the goodness of things according to their manner. The gratitude follows on knowing what they are, on the “naming” of things, as it were.
If we recollect the passage cited in the beginning from St. Thomas’ De Veritate, we will recall that, in knowledge, the perfection of one thing can be included in the perfection of another without changing the thing known. It is this superabundance of being that almost seems to demand that what is be also known. It is even more wondrous. St Thomas describes what might be the highest perfection that a human mind by its own powers might reach. The whole universe in its intelligible order can come to reside in a single intellect. “The entire order and causes of the universe” are inscribed in one soul. But notice that St. Thomas adds a remark from revelation. He does not deny that this exalted end is what the philosophers propose. He does not deny its wonder. But he adds a comment of Gregory the Great. “What do they not see who see Him who sees all things?” The answer, of course, is nothing.
None the less, since we do not yet see Him who sees all things, we still see. The sum total of human happiness includes the seeing and the doing of all things rooted in what is that are not God. I will conclude with two instances of what I mean, one from Peanuts and one from Samuel Johnson.
We see Charlie Brown watching Linus near a tree, sitting on the ground, a rather confused look on his face. Linus is piling rocks. Charlie asks, “What are you doing, Linus?” Linus responds, “Nothing.” In the second scene, Charlie has come over closer to Linus. Charlie continues, “Nothing? It looks like you’re building a rock wall.” Linus replies, “What I meant was nothing important.” In the third scene, we see Linus lining up the rock wall, while Charlie inquires, “Do you mind if I watch?” Suddenly, in the final scene, we realize Lucy has been listening to this, to her, idiotic conversation all along. To perplexed and put-down Charlie and Linus, she pronounces her judgment on the scene: “Fascinating ... somebody useless watching somebody doing something unimportant.” The amusement here, of course, reminds us of the delight of unimportant and useless things, the many things that just exist, the many actions that include someone watching someone else building stone walls.
On Good Friday, 1775, Boswell records attending St. Clement’s Church with Samuel Johnson. In fact, they went to services both in the morning and in the evening. The morning preacher did not choose “a text appropriate for the day,” but the afternoon preacher chose the most fitting text, “It is finished.” They then return to Johnson’s home where they have tea with Mrs. Williams, after which Johnson chats with Boswell for some time. Boswell speaks of his precise attention to what Johnson says. “My wish to hear him was such,” Boswell remarks, “that I constantly watched every dawning of communication from that great and illuminated mind.” It is as if all things are interesting, all things deserve illumination of mind.
In confirmation of this wonder of paying attention to those little things that, when added together, constituted the sum total of human happiness, Boswell records the following remark of Samuel Johnson:
All knowledge is of itself of some value. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable, that I would not rather know it than not. In the same manner, all power (capacity), of whatever sort, is of itself desirable. A man would not submit to learn to hem a ruffle, of his wife, or his wife’s maid; but if a mere wish could attain it, he would rather wish to be able to hem a ruffle.
Nothing is so minute or inconsiderable that we would not wish to know it. We should like to be able to do all things if we did not have to go out of our way to learn them. The great things and the small things.
How could we not see all things “in Him who sees all things?” “The ultimate perfection achievable by the soul, according to the philosophers, is to have inscribed in it the entire order and causes of the universe.” “Fascinating ... somebody useless watching somebody doing something unimportant.” “Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time.” It was St. Thomas’ “special spiritual thesis that there really are Things, and not only the Thing, that the many existed as well as the One.” “Sir, there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man.” “A thing which is not God cannot be except at the cost of not being what it is not.” The superabundance of all things enables us both to be ourselves but also to know what we are not. “The marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey Him demands from the intelligent creature a fitting expression of its gratitude.”
“ISLAM WILL NOT BE THE LOSER”
“Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline (as in the West); and in the contrast between the religious certitudes still strong throughout the Mohammedan world, as lively in India as in Morocco, active throughout North Africa and Egypt, even inflamed through contrast and the feeling of repression in Syria – more particularly in Palestine – lies our peril....
“These lines are written in the month of January, 1937; perhaps before they appear in print the rapidly developing situation in the Near East will have marked some notable change. Perhaps that change will be deferred, but change there will be, continuous and great. Nor does it seem probable that at the end of such a change, especially if the process be prolonged, Islam will be the loser”
“Of course this (attack on World Trade Center) is ‘about Islam.’ The question is, what exactly does that mean? For a vast number of ‘believing’ Muslim men, ‘Islam’ stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God, but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include ... a more particularized loathing and fear of the prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over – ‘Westoxicated’ – by the liberal Western-style way of life.... The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream.”
– Salman Rushdie, The New York Times.
“Islam is the most dynamic force today because, unlike other major religions, it hasn’t succumbed to secularism. It doesn’t divide human life between the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the totality of human existence. Only Islam is the route to victory.”
On Thanksgiving, 2001, a Vatican security advisor fretted about a potential assassination attempt on the life of the Holy Father. The Pope was said to be “the symbolic head of the crusaders and a natural target.” Corriere della Sera has reported at least three attempts on the Pope’s life in the past five years, one of which involved a suicide bomber, trained in United States flight schools, who tried to crash a plane into the Pope’s car in Manila. Thus far, of course, such predictions have not materialized though they must be taken seriously.
We do not know whether the reason for no further attack on American or Western targets after September 11 (this is written December 19) is that the swift response of the West has immobilized hostile forces or whether it is just a question of waiting for a more opportune moment, perhaps some of both. In any case, I know at least one man in Rome who thinks, the way things are going, that St. Peter’s someday, like Santa Sofia, will be a Muslim mosque. Italians, Germans, French are disappearing by their own choice to depopulate themselves. Muslims from various sources from the South and East are rapidly replacing them in Europe, with a considerable presence already in the United States, this with no war at all. Indeed, the worst thing the Muslim terrorists may have done to their own cause was to have alerted such European peoples who will listen to their present decline. The Western secularist response is to “modernize” Islam, that is, teach it birth control and abortion, that is, kill any new Muslim life before it gets started.
Another alternative may well be that of the Holy Father’s teaching of authentic family life, even to Muslims and uncomprehending secularists. “The spiritual roots of the crisis which the Western democracies are experiencing (is) a crisis characterized by the advance of a materialistic, utilitarian and ultimately dehumanized world view which is tragically detached from the moral foundations of Western civilization,” John Paul II remarked.
Economic and political structures must be guided by a vision whose core is the God-given dignity and inalienable rights of every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death. When some lives, including those of the unborn, are subjected to the personal choices of others, no other value or right will long be guaranteed.... Never has it been more urgent to reinvigorate the moral vision and resolve essential to maintaining a just and a free society.
Such lines suggest that there is really a three-fold struggle going on in some complex fashion – Islam, the Christianity, and modern secularism are each involved in different ways.
The First Crusade (1095-99) was indeed called by a pope, Urban II. At the time, it was not seen as an act of aggression against a peaceful foreign power, but as a belated, much too poorly organized attempt to save Europe from falling under the complete control of Islamic forces that had been on the attack for centuries. These Muslim forces had captured most of the once Christian lands south and east of the Mediterranean. They would threaten Spain and France, the Balkans, and the heart of Europe. Islamic civilization was strong and complete. Understanding its force and success was, and is, one of the great intellectual, cultural, and, yes, theological mysteries. Today Islam controls about one fifth of the population of the globe with some twenty-five nations stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan and south to Indonesia and much of northern and central Africa. Some ten years after the fall of communism, when we expected to have no further “world-historical” problems, we find a remarkably vigorous and often militant Islam at our very doorsteps.
What are we to make of this surprising confrontation with Islam? One could maintain that no one saw its coming so far in advance better than the English historian and writer Hilaire Belloc who understood the global interests and ambitions of an Islam never content to be confined within its own historic borders. In today’s world, however, we are accustomed to distinguish between a certain minority of Islamic “terrorists” and the vast majority of Muslims who are said to be “peaceful,” these latter themselves often, as in Afghanistan, subject to these same terrorists. Whether this analysis is adequate, however politically correct it is, remains to be seen. Belloc certainly thought the potential problem of Islam is not confined to a small minority of “terrorists” or “militants” who stand wholly outside its own system. It is difficult to see why such terrorists are not arising within the system. This is, at least, what they believe of themselves.
For the moment, the swift success of the combined American, allied, and Northern Alliance conquest of Afghanistan has silenced many of the current theories that Islam was a unified whole, at one, ready to rise forcefully to overturn a decadent West. The success of a relatively small number of highly sophisticated weapons and troops may again serve to remind modern Islam of its relative impotence, something that bin Laden had tried to counteract by the use of terrorism against the unwillingness of the United States prior to President Bush and the WTC attack to do anything about a long series of lesser attacks on American interests. These attacks in Clinton’s administration apparently proved to bin Laden and others that America, in addition to being a “Satan,” was also a “paper tiger.” A “holy war” waged against it might just succeed if this terrorist analysis of Western lack of will and decadence were proved to be correct.
Why Belloc’s reflections on Islam are worthwhile recalling today, however, is because he
asked a question that is seldom brought up today, namely, what is Islam? What is its theology? What is its common core? Of all the world religions, it has proved to be the most closed to outside influence. Converts from Islam to Christianity or to any other religion almost never happen. It appears as a completely closed system enforced by both custom, law, and, not to be underestimated, coercion. It has grown largely through conquest or, in recent times, by relative population growth against a West bent on depopulating itself. In modern times, Islam has been divided into many differing states, often at odds with each other, though in all there is, in practice, a union of Mosque and state, however defined in each one. We find no single religious authority to define must what Islam holds in the light of its many differing interpretations of itself. Certainly a case can be made that the “terrorist” version is legitimate, as it claims to be. There is, however, no credible large scale Islamic army with sophisticated technology. What weapons Islamic armies have were purchased from the West or East, usually with oil money. Even this military capacity is generally considered to be second-class, at best.
It was not always so. In much of the middle ages, Islamic forces were the best armed and organized in the world. But since the Victory at the Battle of Vienna – a date that Belloc gives as September 11, 1683 – Islamic forces have not been united or able to resist better organized military power.
Since then the armed power of Mohammedanism has declined,” Belloc wrote,
But neither its numbers nor the convictions of its followers have appreciably declined; and as in the territory annexed by it, though it has lost places in which it ruled over subject Christian majorities, it has gained new adherents – to some extent in Asia, and largely in Africa.. Indeed, in Africa it is still expanding among the Negroid populations, and that expansion provides an important future problem fort the European Governments who have divided Africa between them.
Since these words were written, of course, no European colonial powers are in control in Africa or in Asia, while the Muslim states along the southern Russian border have gained their own independence.
Belloc wrote a good deal about Islam. He had a grudging admiration for its persistence, for its historic military prowess, especially for its inconvertibility. In essence, he considered it a Christian heresy, with some similarities to Calvinism. Mohammed
preached and insisted upon a whole group of ideas which were peculiar to the Catholic Church and distinguished it from the paganism which it had conquered in the Greek and Roman civilization. Thus the very foundation of his teaching was that prime Catholic doctrine, the unity and omnipotence of god. The attributes of God he also took over in the main from Catholic doctrine: the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, the providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things and the sustenance of all things by His power alone.
Mohammed also maintained the existence of good and evil spirits, especially of Satan; he maintained the immortality of the soul “with the consequent doctrines of punishment and reward after death.” What began as a heresy became by practice and interpretation a separate religion, though still based on these original ideas.
If there is such agreement with the central core of Christian doctrine, what was the problem? Islam was an effort to simplify religion. What it rejected was the “complications” of Christian revelation. Mohammed “advanced a clear affirmation, full and complete, against the whole doctrine of an incarnate God. He taught that Our Lord was the greatest of all prophets, but still only a prophet: a man like other men. He eliminated the Trinity altogether.” The Trinity and the Incarnation are, of course, the two basic Christian doctrines about the nature of God and His dwelling amongst us.
What followed from the denial of the Incarnation and the notion of “otherness” in the Godhead? The whole sacramental structure was gone – Mass, priesthood, and all that implied. This “simplification” is why Belloc found a similarity between Calvinism and Mohammedanism. “Simplicity was the note of the whole affair; and since all heresies draw their strength from some true doctrine, Mohammedanism drew its strength form the true Catholic doctrines which is retained: the equality of men before God – ‘All true believers are brothers.’ It zealously preached and throve on the paramount claims of justice, social and economic.” It might be noticed in retrospect that the reason the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan gave for refusing to turn over bin Laden when first demanded by the United States was the appeal to Muslim brotherhood.
In the current confrontation with Islam, not a few writers have stressed this “simplicity” theme to explain its relative attractiveness. Belloc’s friend G. K. Chesterton had touched on what is at issue here in several places. “A few centuries (after the Arian heresy) ... the Church had to maintain the same Trinity, which is simply the logical side of love, against another appearance of the isolated and simplified deity in the religion of Islam,” Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man.
Yet there are some who cannot see what the Crusaders were fighting for; and some even who talk as if Christianity had never been anything but a form of what they called Hebraism coming in with the decay of Hellenism [Matthew Arnold]. Those people must certainly be very much puzzled by the war between the Crescent and the Cross. If Christianity had never been anything but a simple morality sweeping away polytheism, there is no reason why Christendom should not have been swept into Islam. The truth is that Islam itself was a barbaric reaction against that very humane complexity that is really a Christian character; that idea of balance in the deity, as of balance in the family, that makes that creed a sort of sanity, and that sanity the soul of civilization.
What is at stake here is something much larger than might at first appear. For it is precisely this defense of “complexity” that makes the understanding of and use of the world possible. As Stanley Jaki has often written, it is this notion of complexity, of creation and stable secondary causes that has made modern science possible and has, in its lack, caused Islam to fail to produce this same science. Again one of the interesting aspects of the current war is the difference between sophisticated scientific warfare and terrorism carried on by relatively simple means.
In addition to the theological side of Islam, which Belloc took with great seriousness, there was its military and cultural side. The First Chapter of his book, still a most exciting and, yes, sad book to read, begins: “Human affairs are decided through conflict of ideas, which often resolve themselves by conflict under arms.” Belloc understood where ultimate issues began and ended. Even though there were some four crusades launched against Islam in the Middle Ages, in Belloc’s view, the only one that counted was the First (1095-99), though the most famous was probably the Third. (1187-92). Belloc is quite clear that the Crusades were a defensive effort, a response to centuries of Islamic conquests at the expense of Christian lands and peoples.
The Crusades were aimed at recapturing Jerusalem and breaking the land connection between the Eastern and Western sectors of Islamic conquest. They almost succeeded but did not, in Belloc’s view, because the Crusaders did not succeed in controlling all the land between the desert and the sea on the Eastern End of the Mediterranean. The final defeat by Saladin, a brilliant military genius, was at Hattin in Syria in 1187. The subsequent rise of the Ottoman Turks and their incursions into Europe are of interest to Belloc as a witness to the perennial nature of Islam to continue on what it calls its mission to conquer the world for Mohammed. The initial successes of Crusading armies in established a feudal kingdom in Jerusalem. But it was the failure of the First Crusade, with its revelation of a lack of sufficient support from the European powers,\ that inaugurated it – France, the Empire, England – that spelled ultimate Islamic victory.
Belloc was clear that it made a difference who lost and who won wars. If this is classical realism, he was indeed a realist. “The military character of the opposing forces in these great duels of history means much more than the nature of their armament and of the personnel which waged the war on either side.” Belloc is aware of the geography, the character of the military commanders. He knows about chance, about incompetence. The Crusades sought to recover the old Roman Eastern and Southern conquests, but they failed. If there is one thing that overwhelms the reader of Belloc, it is the sense of a glorious effort that failed. This failure changed the very face of the modern world, which has very little understood the spiritual forces at work within it.
Today, Belloc’s words of 1937 almost ring in our ears:
That story (of Islamic victory) must not be neglected by any modern, who may think, in error, that the East has finally fallen before the West, that Islam is now enslaved – to our political and economic power at any rate if not to our philosophy. It is not so. Islam essentially survives, and Islam would not have survived had the Crusade made good its hold upon the essential point of Damascus. Islam survives. Its religion is in tact; therefore its material strength may return. Our religion is in peril and who can be confident in the continued skill, let alone the continued obedience, of those who make and work our machines?
We have, here, in a nutshell the essence of Belloc’s thesis, one that occasions a further reflection on what this current war is about.
The secularism of the West is, no doubt, much more prevalent than in Belloc’s time. The general view of this war is not one between “Christendom” and “Islam,” but between “terrorists” and the secularized democracies. The solution of this problem, from the “terrorist” view point, is to conquer a decadent West. The alternate view is to get rid of the “terrorists” and allow to exist a form of rule in Islamic lands that conforms to modern notions of democracy, tolerance, and culture. This position can easily be looked upon as a new form of “colonialism” or even “imperialism” in which the solution to the military problem is to refashion the governments that are seen to be responsible for the problem in the first place. There is a sense in which the current war can be seen as a struggle of secularist democracy against both a “fanatic” Islam and an equally “fanatic” Christianity, or at least its what remains of it. All forms of religion, in this view, are seen to be “fanatical.” It should not pass without note that, in the immediate aftermath of the WTC bombing, the initial response of the American people was in fact, in addition to being shocked, religious.
Belloc was quite conscious that the spiritual force of Islam has remained in tact. He is amazed at its persistence and the sources of this strength. But he does not underplay it. He is quite clear that he thinks Islam will rise again. When it does, it will not find in the West a spiritual strength sufficient to counteract it. We might say, thus far, that since we still have men to “work the machines,” that Islam must remain relatively contained. And not all citizens in the West are in fact secularists. If, however, modern secularist ideas could be imposed on Islam, especially those that deal with its population so that there would not be such a surplus of young men, then we could undermine its present attractiveness. Likewise, if we could invent something that would replace oil, say, a practical hydrogen fueled motor, we could undermine the financial strength that had financed Islam’s current power and ability to expand.
“There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine where religious doctrine is still held, and even in that part of the European population where the united doctrine and definitions of Catholicism survives, it survives as something to which the individual is attached rather than the community,” Belloc concluded. “As nations we worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice. Those who direct us, and from whom the tone of our policy is taken, have no major spiritual interest.” Belloc’s comment on “social justice” is itself extremely perceptive as many of those who blame America for all this wish to see the problems of Islamic aggressiveness to be one of its internal hurt feeling that it was being treated unjustly. Therefore, in this view, the problem was not Islam’s but of the West. This sort of flawed analysis is quite prevalent in many modern religious analyses of ideological aggressiveness. It continually underestimates the vigor of spiritual forces. Islam, because of what it is, would be a problem without economics, without Israel, and without the modern world.
“Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline (found in the West),” Belloc affirms. Its spiritual power is seen everywhere within its own realms. “We are divided in the face of a Mohammedan world, divided by separate independent national rivalries, by the warring interests of possessors and dispossessed – and that division cannot be remedied because the cement which once held our civilisation together, the Christian cement, has crumbled.” Belloc is definitely not on the side of the “secularist” solution to the current problem of Islam. He sees the spiritual unity of the West has, in its absence, political consequences of the utmost importance.
One last note is worth making. It is often said that the current Mideast problem is largely caused by the presence of the Jews back on their ancient homeland, but a homeland that Islam now claims exclusively its own. This Jewish presence is supported by Western and currently American power. Belloc did not think that the problem of Islam was caused by the presence of a Jewish homeland under English sponsorship. He thought that the problem would be present even if no Jewish homeland ever existed. However, he did think that the presence of Jews in Palestine (he writes of course before the formation of an independent Jewish state) was an irritant.
Of all the forms of foreign disturbance suffered by Syria in these new days of change, Zionism is the most violent and the most detested by the native population. That hatred may be called ineffective; the Jewish advance is bound to continue so long as there is peace and so long as the English are in undisputed possession. The Jews bring with them a much higher material civilisation, trained scientific experts, a largely increased exploitation of the land, and of all natural resources.
But Belloc did not see the Jewish presence as merely a higher standard of living. The Jews too had their spiritual roots. They are “inspired by as strong a motive as can move men to action.”
Yet, even with Jewish numbers, increasing at the time, and standard of life, Belloc did not think it would ultimately be sufficient “against the fierce hostility of the Moslem world which surrounds them. That hostility is another moral force with which the future cannot but be filed. We in the West do not appreciate it because we do not hear its expression, we are not witnesses of the gestures nor partners in the conversations which fill the Near East; but if we ignore it we are ignoring something which may change our fate.” It is difficult to read these lines today without a sense of awe at their perceptiveness.
Belloc’s study of the Crusades, then, provides a unique and fascinating look at the relation of military and spiritual forces. To read him today is almost like reading current history, granted that he could not possibly have foreseen all the nuances of the present. Belloc was able to see “what might have been.” He is left with the perplexity of Islam, what is it? Why does it remain? He makes us aware that, while we must study the side of Islam, and other religions, that we have something in common with, the fact remains that there is much that we do not have in common. This is recognized more clearly by Islam than by ourselves. Moreover, ideas, especially religious ideas, do have consequences. The answer to these ideas is not, as the secularists think, to get rid of any religion as a potential source of “fanaticism.”
Rather some forum must be found in which the truth of the religions can be faced. This requires a politics and a military capable of making the conversations possible. Islam, Israel, and Christianity, the three religions of the book, must recognize the dynamic consequences of their own relationship to one another. War may be necessary to make conversation possible, as Chesterton once remarked. What seems obvious in the aftermath of the “terrorist” attacks is that God will not let the great religions leave the question of truth unresolved. Wars do not solve this prior problem. But the prior problem must be faced at its own level, that transcendent level wherein what counts, ultimately, is the truth of things.
AMERICAN POLITICS AND ROMAN CATHOLICISM
"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs," we read in the 2d century Christian document, the letter to Diognetus.
They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
Yet, the letter goes on, Christians realize that any country is only a temporary home in this world; they seek to live calm lives, marry and have children, but "they do not expose them." These ancient words remind us of what is sought in any civil society. There are things of "Caesar," that is, of the state, and things of God. They ought not to be in conflict with one another, but historically, they often are. The highest things do not belong to the state, even though the state is itself necessary and useful to human life.
The State of Maryland, was established in 1634 by Catholics who fled England in hope of living in peace. Several Catholics from this colony signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. With immigration and natural increase in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Catholics came to form somewhere around a quarter of the American population. The American Constitution and Bill of Rights sought to provide freedom of religion for all citizens. This freedom, which John Paul II has called a people’s most basic right, represented something unusual in the history of relations between Christians and politics. Religion and politics, by understanding their own proper missions, could exist side by side and be helpful to one another. Though Catholics were subject to various sorts of prejudice or persecution in the history of the United States, in general, the religion mostly prospered. Catholics sought to live peacefully within the laws of the country under which they hoped to see no fundamental opposition to their beliefs become coercive laws or even customs.
Catholics have actively participated in the American political system by voting for public officials and by themselves holding public offices, from the presidency to the congress, members of the Supreme Court and the judiciary, to governors of states, state legislators, mayors and members of local government. Catholics have been members of the armed forces and the various civil bureaucracies, as well as participants in all forms of the economy. All of this would lead one to conclude that the American polity and the Catholic religion are in practice generally compatible.
The experience of Catholics living under republican or democratic forms of government has not been long, though it has been as long as these governments themselves have existed. Though its theoretical origins are earlier, the problem that has arisen in the last half-century has been conversion democracy into a system of rule that acknowledges no higher law but itself. The premise of the general approval by Catholicism of democracy was that the latter saw itself as limited by law and some transcendent principle. It was, ironically, a Catholic Supreme Court Justice (Brennan) who argued, implicitly, that the law was what the Court, not what the Constitution, said it was.
This latter principle has disturbed the relationship of Catholicism and American politics. Indeed, many Catholics, themselves by not opposing abortion, have come to approve such secular ideas. The state itself no longer recognizes any serious religious limits to its coercive jurisdiction and power. Ironically, the main issue of unsettlement in the public forum, one that places Catholics, not the courts, on the side of the Declaration of Independence's "right to life ," has to do, as it did in the 2d Century, with "the exposure of infants," that is, with abortion and more recently euthanasia.
By these latter practices, the democratic state to be limited by nothing other than itself. The earlier "separation" theories agreed in principle that there were differing spheres between state and religion with a definite ordering of principle. After the “evolution” of a democratic state, we have a reopening of the more ancient problem of the absolute or tyrannical state before all principled opposition to it.
Roman Catholicism has been aware that its relation to any civil order is potentially precarious. Catholicism does not maintain that we can find the main principles of polity in the Bible, even though we can find there a few pertinent ideas about the nature of the state. The New Testament in fact has very little to say about politics. To know about politics, we mostly have to go to human experience and knowledge. But there are limits without which both politics and religion would cease to be themselves. Each would tend to take on the purpose and aura of the other.
The first Archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, wrote in 1784, that "if we have the wisdom and temper to preserve (our religious and civil freedom), America may come to exhibit a proof to the world, that general and equal toleration, by giving a free circulation to fair argument, is the most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christianity to a unity of faith." Such a happy result has not yet taken place. However, within the American experience, such words do reflect the ancient letter about the place of Christians in any political society. They would like to take truth seriously, live in peace, and not be forced to practices contrary to reason and faith. Roman Catholicism in America remains at least one presence within the polity by which we can judge whether the polity is faithful to itself and to what is right and good.
ON THE POINT OF MEDIEVAL POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
"The framework of 'Christian philosophy' ... is that in Christ man received an intelligence which relates to the whole of the universe and of existence, and therefore by definition concerns anyone who engages in philosophizing -- and which, moreover, is valid by virtue of a superhuman claim to truth. Should anyone reject this premise, he must in consistency regard 'Christian philosophy,' however one defines it, as meaningless. The whole of medieval philosophy must remain inaccessible to him, as far as its sole underlying motif is concerned."
"For the Jew and the Moslem, religion is primarily not, as it is for the Christian, a faith formulated in dogmas, but a law, a code of divine origin. Accordingly, the religious science, the sacra doctrina, is not dogmatic theology, theologia revelata, but the science of the law, halaka or fiqh. The science of the law thus understood has much less in common with philosophy than has dogmatic theology. Hence the status of philosophy is, as a matter of principle, much more precarious in the Islamic-Jewish world than it is in the Christian world. No one could become a competent Christian theologian without having studied at least a substantial part of philosophy; philosophy was an integral part of the officially authorized and even required training."
In 1973, the Spanish philosopher, Salvador de Madariaga, received the International Charlemagne Peace Prize, in Aachen, in Germany. The city of Aachen, he pointed out, the ancient seat of the Holy Roman Empire, of Charlemagne himself, has its own name in most European languages -- Aken, Aix la Chapelle, Aquisgrán. This variety of name implies a spiritual unity that predates the formation of modern European languages and states. At the conclusion of his remarks, de Madariaga recalled the common heritage of Europe, its diversity within its unity. He made a suggestion that sums up, perhaps better than any similar proposal, what is at stake when we speak of medieval political philosophy and its legacy, both with regard to the classics that preceded it and to modernity that followed it.
"Our faith would therefore have to rest on something beyond and above the Common Market or even common defence," de Madariaga reflected.
And so we return to the two rivers of spirit on whose confluence Europe is born. Now, precisely here, we meet a dangerous paradox. We want to set up a European State, but we are dying of too much State about us. We must instill into our youth the feeling of individual responsibility for individual destiny.... We should ... formally receive as European citizens every new generation, at an adequate time, and during the ceremony present to each youth a copy of a book bearing the text from Plato describing the death of Socrates, and from the Gospels, describing the death of Christ, not merely because they are the two spiritual fathers of Europe but because they both perished at the hands of the state.
Must the state, killer of its philosophers and of the Savior Himself, continue to strangle also its citizens? Is medieval political philosophy the peculiar locus, the point, at which we see most clearly what the political order might be because we see there most clearly that it is not itself "the City of God," to recall Augustine's famous expression?
Such is the double heritage, Socrates and Christ, Athens and Jerusalem, about the meaning of which the medieval thinkers asked themselves. That is to say, they became vividly aware of their own order because they understood and made their own possession the traditions and positions that came to them from other times, from, so they held, that "time" beyond time they designated as eternity. Unlike modernity, they did not think it permissible or even scientific simply to ignore or actively to oppose the revelational tradition when considering political things. Nor did they deny that reason and experience had something legitimate to say about political things.
All medieval thinkers had read their Augustine who told them not to be surprised if such dire events as the killing of Socrates and of Christ should happen again and again in this world, in their very midst, in their very cities. Boethius, who was killed by an Emperor, and Sir Thomas More, who was killed by a king, at the far ends of the middle ages, can be said to stand as proof of this possibility. The Augustinian heritage of "political realism" has prepared us for what ought not to happen but still does happen among us. "Augustine believed ... that he had uncovered the lowest common denominators of human existence in the saeculum: a need for social life, hence for peace and order; a divided will easily traduced by a lust to dominate and to possess; a world of insoluble estrangements, perils and shortcomings. But this was a man who loved and hoped." Augustine thus understood in advance the data of a Machiavelli at the beginnings of modernity, but he did not conclude with it. He did not think that understanding the worst in us justified our ignoring the best, neither the best we can understand or the best to which we might be called.
Medieval men came later to read Aquinas who told them that the state, while it could indeed be ruled by wicked men and be configured in distorted regimes, also, as Aristotle maintained, had something positive to accomplish, by and for honorable men, in and about this world. Man was a political animal, even in the Fall, even before the Fall. The polity was not simply or primarily the result of original sin, even though that sin had plenty to do with how it appeared among us and why there were recurring disorders that the state could not seem effectively to remedy. Through reading the very text in John's Gospel, in which Pilate, with jurisdiction in the case, questioned Christ about His "kingship," all medieval men knew that the functionary of the Roman province was told that even his authority was from God. It was not, as such, denied legitimacy in the revelational accounts.
The standard texts discussing the history of medieval political philosophy -- the McIlwanes, the Sabines, the Dunnings, the Carlyles, with their more recent followers -- do not hesitate to see specifically medieval origins for modern constitutionalism, for representation, for elections, for limited monarchy, for guilds, for civic organization and beauty, for universities, for legal systems, for commerce, for business, for the mitigation of slavery, and for the idea of submitting the war power to political rule.
"The main questions of that scholastic thought of the thirteenth century seem to have been these," J. W. Allen wrote.
What is the nature of obligation as between man and man, and, in connection with and dependence on that, what is the nature of political obligation? What is the purpose which justifies to reason all that we mean by government? Or, in other words, what is the true function of government? And, finally, what is the character of that state the realisation of which will satisfy man's needs and aspirations? This last is the question Plato had asked in The Republic. These questions, though not exactly in the form I have given them, are raised at every point in the writings of the twelfth and thirteenth century. The question of the extent of civil authority and law-making power was wholly bound up with the question as to moral obligation in general. The controversy as to the relations between Pope and Emperor, stripped of its non-essentials, was a controversy as to the end and purpose of life on earth.
That is, it makes considerable difference if man is the highest being and hence political science the highest science. This is what Aristotle had observed would be the case if, contrary to fact, there were no transcendent order.
If the "end and purpose of life on earth" turn out to be nothing but life on earth itself, then politics becomes not just the highest moral discipline but the highest science itself. This "highest" science then defines what is right or wrong within the polity and determines that on which man bases himself on no other authority but himself. The modern conflation of metaphysics into politics has its origins in an erroneous understanding of precisely "the end and purpose of life on earth." Medieval political philosophy is the effort to think properly about politics when man, in his one given being, both belongs to and transcends the civitas. The medievals are aware that something is at work in the world that is not wholly explained by the world itself. For medieval thinkers, politics had a place within overall intellectual order. But it did not form the intellectual order itself. To know the truth of things included knowing the truth of political things, knowing where politics stood in the ranking of other things.
Classical political philosophy, post-Aristotelian political philosophy, medieval, modern, and even post-modern political philosophies are not merely or primarily descriptions of politics within the historic time in which they were written and formulated, even though this description is a worthy academic endeavor. Philosophy itself is the effort to understand, by the unaided power of the human intellect, what is, in its causes and its wholeness. Philosophy includes what the various philosophers have thought it to be. The errors of the philosophers are, ironically, an essential component of philosophy itself. Such errors live, and should live, as Aquinas taught us, in our active intelligence precisely as considered errors. Philosophy arises within an embodied intelligence that finds itself already existing within things that it did not make but towards which its mind is directed in order to understand. The philosopher as an existing being and as an existing this-kind-not-some-other kind of being, that is a rational animal, begins from within an order he did not make but to which he is open through his intellect. His mind is a tabula rasa but not the world to which his mind is directed.
The very need to add the term "unaided" to the normal power of the human intellect implies, to be sure, a whole philosophical effort and tradition. The adjective "unaided" never occurred to Aristotle to qualify reason; yet, as St. Thomas was to demonstrate, it was very pertinent to Aristotle, to understanding even the truth of the great Greek philosopher. This addition refers to the revelational tradition that suggested that, for its highest efforts to know the meaning of man and the order of the world, the natural intellect was, in its own terms, insufficient, but not wholly helpless or deceptive. But this very insufficiency, as Aquinas again shows (I-II, 91, 4), is solidly grounded in things that the intellect, by its own unaided power, acts on and seeks to know. Revelation appears to reason, thinking properly on itself, more as a curious harmony related to some whole than as a contradiction absolutely separating one realm from the other. The famous "two truth theory" in Arabic and late medieval theory sought to propose a workable solution for any problems between revelation and reason whereby the two could "contradict" each other; that is, though contradictory, both could be true. This move, however, split the integrity of the human mind in two. Medieval theory, including medieval political philosophy, at its best, however, found enough reason in revelation and enough perplexing lacunae in reason to lead it to suspect that the whole includes both in some coherent order.
Perhaps it is not wholly proper to speak of political philosophy as merely a "branch" of the whole that is philosophy, though it is that also. Political philosophy has the added burden of convincing the politician to permit philosophy to happen, at least in public. The conflict of politics and philosophy is, no doubt, an ancient one, as is the conflict of both with poetry. The medievals too knew something of Plato, if only through Cicero or Augustine. The politician can use his coercive powers against the truth of the philosopher by threatening his life in exchange for accepting theories compatible with going civil theology. All medievals, unlike most moderns, knew what happened to Christ. However, this coercion exercised by the politician on the philosopher or prophet works for the politician only so long as the philosopher ceases to prepare for and to accept death. The philosopher who simply supports the regime is never a threat to the regime. When the politician kills the philosopher or saint, what he does is to immortalize the reason why the philosopher opposed the state. This very act of political force against which the philosopher objected served to define the limits of the political order.
One could, perhaps, define modern political philosophy as that philosophy that does not consider it necessary, whether justified or not, to ponder the pertinence of revelation to reason. Medieval political philosophy, in a sense, arrived after medieval revelation and after the communities which it built. Ralph Lerner and Mushin Mahdi point out that there were two ways to deal with this representation of classical philosophy within the order of life erected around the various Christian, Jewish, and Muslim revelations. The Muslim and Jewish revelations were presented primarily as "laws." This meant that the pious member of the community defined his standing before God in so far as he did or did not observe the laws. In varying degrees, the civil order itself was constituted by the revelational order.
Broadly stated, theology was the paramount science in Christianity. The Christian community was constituted, not by a single divine Law that comprehensively prescribed opinions and actions of every kind, but rather by a sacred doctrine. The custodians of this doctrine were apostolic successors, the hierarchy, and the theologians, not the jurists. In Islam it is the all-embracing Law and its study that are supreme. Theology occupies a prominent, though subordinate position. Judaism, like Islam, is constituted by a comprehensive revealed Law.
This meant that the pious member of the community defined his standing before God insofar as he did or did not observe the laws. In varying degrees, the civil order itself was constituted by the revelational order.
It is perhaps well to notice that in Christianity "sacred doctrine" is not what is directly revealed. What is believed is that from the inner life of the Trinitarian God, the person of Christ, true God and true man, came to dwell amongst us in a certain time and place. This basic belief is reflectively and authoritatively spelled out in sacred doctrine in order that we can understand it as accurately as possible. Sacred doctrine, however, was not the revelation itself, but a careful explanation of it. The mind seeks to know and state the truth of who Christ was. The sacred doctrine is not the direct object of belief, but rather the human effort to reflect on and state clearly what this revelation meant. In this sense, it is a work of reason stimulated by a revealed teaching.
What is the point of medieval political philosophy? Let me cite two passages I recently found in the local newspaper. The first concerns a liberal Anglican Christian bishop commenting on the fact that the African and Asian bishops at the Lambeth Conference upheld the sixth commandment (“thou shalt not commit adultery”) as an essential part of Christian revelation. The bishop of Newark accused African bishops of being "superstitious" in upholding the classical form of Christianity. John Paul II himself recently affirmed in Veritatis Splendor the same principle that the African and Asian bishops did. The reason the bishop gave for his modern view of the sixth commandment was that it was "ignorant of modern science." The logic of this view is that Christian revelation itself has no rational basis in human experience itself. The faith is now judged solely in terms of a "higher" criterion, namely, modern science, whatever that is at a given time.
Needless to say, this position that the commandment is "unscientific" makes science a more absolute faith than revelation ever was. There is, in fact, no "science" that decides that the sixth commandment is counter to reason and every evidence that it protects human life. Or to state the issue in terms of medieval philosophy, revelation is not against reason but addresses itself to reason, in this case the proper relation of the sexes, precisely in a manner that guides reason to be more reasonable. The argument is not whether there is a "reason" in error or sin, but in whether this reason, this statement of what it is, corresponds with a reality that the reason itself did not originally constitute in its intelligibility.
The second issue was from the review of a book on Islam. This is the passage: "One of those blocks (that prevent the 'Middle East from entering the mainstream of modernity') is the orthodox tenet that the Koran and the scriptures contain all the knowledge required to deal with the problems of contemporary society." For Christianity, revelation is not a substitute for experience or for the books of the political thinkers about the proper rule of the city. The Koran, on the other hand, is conceived to be a description of the best city or regime. All regimes not embodying its strictures are held to be inferior. That is, revelation is a law. However, from the view of the medieval Islamic political philosophers, this prophecy needs to be judged by a higher science. Thus, it is possible to allow the public order to be ruled by the Law for those who have not risen to philosophic excellence. Inasmuch as it is dangerous to manifest one's philosophic questioning of the law, the philosopher is left with "two truths." He can acknowledge that the best existing regime is the one given by the Prophet, but in his seclusion he still reflects on its truth in terms of a philosophy that might indicate the superiority of some other regime at least in speech.
Taken together, these two passages reveal the abiding pertinence of medieval political philosophy not just as an antiquarian interest but as something found in the daily press. For some, even for some Christians, science has replaced revelation. For some Muslims, the Law has replaced politics, so that the philosopher has to become a strictly private man in order to survive. Unlike Socrates, the philosopher is not killed by the state; rather he is simply reduced to silence or irrelevance. Both the Christian who takes his "revelation" primarily from "science" and the Muslim who does not protest the Law in public, the active interrelation of reason and revelation, the medieval reality, are reduced to a practical monism.
E. B. F. Midgley, writing of the problem of modernity seen in the analysis of Eric Voegelin, sets down the essential framework of the medieval position on faith and reason as seen in Aquinas. That is, an effort is made to know and to state the truth taking into consideration both reason and revelation. "Voegelin rightly sees that the natural order is incomplete and that it needs to be open to that which is divine and transcendent," Midgley writes.
He [Voegelin] also rightly insists that divine revelation is mysterious and that the divine truth cannot be fully comprehended or mastered by man in this life. If Voegelin had confined himself to statements such as these, his teaching would have been reconciled with the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. Departing drastically from Aquinas, however, Voegelin makes the unjustified supposition that the mysteriousness of the divine revelation precludes the definitive definition by the Church of the articles of faith. Voegelin insists that "uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity."' He wants the constancy of a tension between truth and untruth as if the persevering attempt to find truth and to separate it from untruth would somehow tend to destroy the reality of human existence. Indeed, he even writes of the "murderous possession of truth," as if there were something evil in seeking to find it unalloyed with error.
The "reality of human existence" does not exclude but demands the effort to state the truth as clearly and as accurately as possible. The fact that the propositions containing such efforts lead to and indicate a reality more penetrating than the formulations themselves is itself included in any understanding of Christian teaching.
The point of medieval political philosophy is not merely Augustine's "city of God" and "city of man" but their mutual relationship and difference within existing polities. It is true that one of the sources of cultural vitality in the West has been precisely the two sources of authority and their mutual addressing themselves to man and to the condition of man in the world. But the hypothesis of this relationship was that truth and knowledge had a common source or origin, that they did not contradict each other, as Aquinas said. Medieval theory did not consider the human mind ever to match or comprehend the divine mind and its relationship through eternal law to the order of things. There was a certain contentment with mystery, but on a mystery that was bathed in light and not confusion. All intelligence, including human intelligence, was able to know after its own manner.
Insofar as political philosophy recognized the limits of the city, and thereby let the drama of
the highest things take place with a freedom and order that did not substitute the political authority for the divine authority, it made possible the free consideration of what was not political. The politicization of the speculative order is what is characteristic of modernity wherein will, specifically human will, is found at the center of both nature and human nature. Indeed, human will interposes itself in a manner that makes it divine will. The transition from William of Occam and Marsilius of Padua to Hobbes, marks the end of medieval thinking. The divine will, presupposed to nothing but itself, presupposed to no divine reason in Occam and Marsilius, becomes political will in Hobbes, again a will presupposed to nothing but itself. In a sense, the late medieval treatises on the divine will and the early modern treatments of the sovereign are the same treatise.
Do we still need medieval political philosophy, if not to clarify our polities, at least to clarify our minds? Pierre Manent concluded his The City of Man with these rather enigmatic and remarkable words:
The emperor of the visible empire, "sol invictus," the invincible sun, has as his opponent and successor the vicar of the invisible empire, "servus servorum Dei," the servant of the servants of God. Some other time we shall study the cause that resides in the separation of the two Romes. We must prepare for a second and altogether different crossing. We never understand more than the half of things when we neglect the science of Rome.
The point of medieval political philosophy, in the scope of academic things, is that we have busily produced generations of scholars who never have understood "more than half the things."
The "inaccessibility" of medieval philosophy, to use Josef Pieper's term, has remained among us as an active absence. That is, what is lacking in a people who have known the elevation of grace but who have neglected to account for its effect is an elevated expectation devoid of any grounding except in the human will. The lack which Strauss saw in the Jews and the Muslims has become endemic to the moderns also. It manifests itself in political philosophies that substitute themselves for the metaphysics of being, of what is. In a strange way, stranger than we might admit, this is the story of our academic and, all too often, of our personal lives. We are a people who contemplate only ourselves, a people who are aware of only half the things that count. Such is the point of medieval political philosophy. To the readings from Plato and John that de Madiaraga offers to each new citizen of our culture in which we seek to know "all things knowable," to cite Dante, it is incumbent to add a longer work. This work, as its author says in its very beginning, is also intended for young students, in the belief that they too could know the truth of things. This book is the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher and theologian of the middle ages, the absence of whose presence has defined our modernity.
STRUCTURES OF EVIL – STRUCTURES OF GOOD
On the Centrality of Personal Sin
Classical political philosophy recognizes a relationship between the inner life and character of individuals as citizens and the form of polity they choose to put into existence to manifest and habitualize this inner life. If the inner life is virtuous, the forms of rule will be constructed to foster this virtue. If inner life is degrading or selfish, by virtue of a person’s choosing as his exclusive good either wealth, pleasure, or power as ends, the forms of rule will be deliberately designed to enhance the disordered ends chosen deep in the souls of the citizens. The historic distinctions between monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, the good forms of rule, on the one hand, and tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy in all their varieties, on the other, were rooted in this diversity within citizen souls about what they defined as happiness and good.
Individuals were free to reject the highest things as the ultimate purpose of their lives. It is largely the practical intellectual virtue of prudence that guides citizens in deciding which forms foster virtue and which enable vice when the ends of soul are chosen. There can be a wide variety of practical arrangements to achieve either virtuous or vicious rule, as Aristotle already indicated in his Politics, but not so wide that external forms of rule were totally unrelated to the inner condition of soul that they are designed to encourage.
To describe this relationship of inner and outer man and the state, the American columnist George Will has coined the happy, very Platonic-sounding phrase, “soul-craft is state-craft,” and vice versa, “state-craft is soul-craft.” Modernity, at times, following Machiavelli and Hobbes, would like us to think that there is a “science” of government, modeled on the physical sciences, that would somehow bypass the free choices of lived lives so that some certain “knowledge” of state-craft could always be relied upon. Classic theories of political prudence, contrariwise, argued that rule included precisely the practical reason and the free choices of the citizens in their personal lives. The state itself has no substantial being outside the relationships of citizens to one another. Political and ethical human things, moreover, were true only “for the most part.” We should not expect more certitude of a subject matter than the subject can yield, in this case, the variable free choices of human persons interrelating with one another. Political things can always be “otherwise” because of their rootedness in human freedom, including freedom to sin.
Philosophers like Edmund Burke have recognized that political structures or forms that are commonly considered to be seriously defective can actually, in practice, work in a tolerable manner if the people under them are themselves becoming wise and virtuous. There is no need always to change laws if something better in theory appears, as St. Thomas also has reminded us (I-II, 97, 2). Mathematical consistency is not necessarily a virtue in politics. Likewise, forms of elections, say proportional representation, that seem so equitable and logical, may in fact wreak havoc on a society. Often, in proportion as a thing is arithmetically perfect, it is politically unstable. What we often today call political “structures” are nothing but the habitual forms of custom and law developed by a nation to guide its ways of living and acting. Political structures do not determine, though they may influence, human behavior for better or worse.
It is largely Rousseau who has conditioned us to think that what is wrong with our inner, spiritual life comes, not from within ourselves, as we have been taught since Genesis and Plato, but from our institutions, from our “structures.” In this Rousseauian view, contrary to Burke, if we want to save ourselves, we have to change radically our institutions or structures. This latter view puts the primary responsibility for our souls in the hands of political or economic “structures,” as they are called, and in the hands of those anxious to reform and refashion men through reforming and refashioning our institutions. We are left morally free, by such a theory, to do about as we please or as we must, depending on what emphasis we want to place on the consequences of the theory. In either case, we are not responsible for our condition; our structures are.
Christianity, thanks to its Greek and Roman heritage through Augustine and Aquinas, has not been Rousseauian. With Aristotle, it has always begun its political thinking with personal ethics. It has argued that we could lose our souls in the best of structural societies under whatever forms, and we could save them in the worst tyrannies or the most dissolute of democracies. This latter truth is witnessed in our time by a Maximillian Kolbe or by a Solzhenitsyn in his account of life in the Gulag. On the whole, Christianity has been instinctively, when not explicitly, Aristotelian. That is, we need a certain amount of wealth to practice virtue. Christianity does not treat human beings as if they were angels or totally incapable of ruling and habituating themselves. It has also been instinctively Chestertonian, that is, the worst moral environment in which we can find ourselves is not poverty -- the poor are blessed – but great wealth that provides us with many kinds of temptations in all areas, as Aristotle too already saw. We should not be under the illusion that the poor cannot sin or lose their own souls. The drama of salvation takes place in every walk of life, every economic condition, every generation, in every land, and in every heart.
The philosopher Eric Voegelin remarked that we do not have to participate in the disorders of our time. That is, he argued that we are not determined by our political or economic forms. This truth recalls Socrates’ persistent refrains in The Apology and in The Crito that “it is never right to do wrong; it is better to suffer evil than to do it.” When given a choice between doing wrong and dying, we choose the latter. We do not know that dying is evil, but we do know that doing wrong is. The Holy Father, in a number of instances, has recently noted the similarity of the death of Socrates and the death of Christ, especially on this point. “Christ was not simply a wise man as was Socrates.” John Paul II wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (p. 43). “[Socrates’] free acceptance of death in the name of truth nevertheless has a similarity with the sacrifice of the Cross.” Most of the disorder and controversy about our public life concerns its relation to our private or internal life.
On the one hand, we are told confidently that there exists no relation between the inner life of a politician and his public deeds or leadership; he can be a good politician without being a good man. Leaders themselves repeat this dubious thesis, especially when their inner lives are known to be sordid. Contrariwise, we are told that it makes no sense to forbid by laws certain sins, even the most publicly destructive ones of which St. Thomas spoke, because laws are said to have no relation to morals. This odd theory exists in a world in which we are told, more and more, for instance, by ever more severe laws and penalties, that we cannot smoke. We become simultaneously rigid Puritans in one area and moral laxists in another.
Jan Cardinal Schotte gave the Commencement Address in 1999 at Thomas Aquinas College in California (Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter, Summer, 1999). Schotte noted the tendency to judge the Church by applying to it “sociological measurements, namely, statistics, opinion polls, majority acceptance, an applause meter.” Schotte remarked that many today look on the Church primarily “for her apostolic activity on behalf of the needy and oppressed, as a kind of philanthropic United Nations.” The result is a down-playing of the vertical or transcendent centrality of the Church. Schotte draws out the consequences of this position quite bluntly:
Though the Church has an organizational system, she is not an instrument of some horizontal humanitarian religion, but first and foremost a community of sinners, saved in the blood of Christ, and therefore, a people dedicated to the worship and praise of God, and because of Him, dedicated to the service of others! In over-emphasizing service of others, some limit the definition of Christian living solely to the obligation of loving one’s neighbor. If the Church were nothing more than a philanthropic United Nations, it would follow that here hierarchical structure would be hopelessly out-dated in a democratic society, where all its citizens decide the system of government and continuously adapt the workings of government to the ever-changing circumstances and realities of the times (p. 6).
Schotte clearly stresses the danger of making Christianity into obedience only to the Second Commandment and neglecting the First.
The Belgian Cardinal makes two very significant observations that serve to illustrate how religion in general and Christianity in particular to become little less than a function of politics. First, he points out that church architecture often has become merely functional. “The architectural area is no longer exclusively ‘worship space,’ the point of meeting between
god and His people. On the contrary, it loses its spiritual significance, the building becomes purely functional, totally identified with the various human necessities of society, or totally focused on the assembly itself.” This is very well said and points to the greatest of dangers that confront the Church today, the claim to be able to eliminate the hierarchy and its purpose with regard to the deposit of faith to be passed on down the ages and the replacement of both God and hierarchy by the community as, in practice, the new object of worship. “We risk forgetting the ultimate aim of all human existence, and in doing so we reduce Christian hope to an all inclusive but worldly utopia.”
The second aspect of this elevation of the Second Commandment, one following from secularization of architecture, is downgrading of the Incarnation and its transcendent implication for eternal life. The utopians want a perfect world and cannot stand the incarnational aspect of the Church itself. “People continue to have an idea of the Church which expects her to be beyond all human weakness and tension, passing through history as a hot air balloon floats over the prairies and the mountains. People dream that, like the balloon, she will be able to regulate her ascent and descent according to the obstacles along the way. They envisage the Church as if the Son of God never walked the earth. They see the Church as exclusively divine.” But if the Church is exclusively divine, then the Incarnation never happened, nor is the Mass with the priesthood possible. Again we see the “reductionism” that the Holy Father so often refers to when social scientists think they can analyze faith by rational methodologies. Schotte’s way of putting the problem is remarkably clear:
Liturgy is an indispensable part of the Christian life, requiring a proper formation. In this way, there will be eliminated an excessively horizontal or sociological view which consists in wrongly looking at the Mass as simply an act of the assembly gathered, or viewing the priest as simply a “presider” over the assembly, or seeing the altar as simply a table for a meal. Instead, by adding the vertical or divine dimension, the Liturgy, particularly the Mass, is rightly seen as Christ’s act of worship to His Father, which goes beyond the group gathered. In this way, the words and gestures of the Mass are understood not to be the possession of the individual priest nor of the assembled worshipers, but a part of the patrimony of the Church, which needs to be faithfully respected and passed on intact to succeeding generations. (p. 7).
It will be noted that almost every major practical and theoretical problem in the Church is touched on in these remarks of Cardinal Schotte at Thomas Aquinas College.
I wish now to remark on how these considerations of political philosophy and the need to keep the centrality of the revelational tradition emphasized by Cardinal Schotte relate to the question of personal sin and so-called political “structures.” In a single issue of L’Ossevatore Romano, English (1 September 1999), we find 1) a letter of the Holy Father to Participants in a Study Week on Marriage and Family, followed by 2) an essay by Professor William May entitled “Partial-birth Abortion and Catholics,” and finally 3) a Wednesday audience devoted precisely to the relation between personal sin and society. Since these three subjects are so intimately intertwined and lead most directly to the heart of the central disorders in our society touched on earlier, I want to make some comment on them.
Behind each of these essays hovers the condition of the modern republic, of the civilization to which it belongs, that bears, by its own choice, politicians and voters who have been intimately involved in establishing the “structures of evil” that have become justified in our laws and customs. Politically, we are no longer horrified by deeds we allow or promote with our laws. This does not mean that “everyone is a conscious sinner,” but rather that those who are still anxious to practice virtue and define evil as evil have not managed to exercise their moral and political choices in such a way as to change the evident disorders of soul that are now part of our public order.
Our ability to examine our own souls is, at best, a curious and difficult one. Aristotle doubts very much, once we habituate ourselves to personal moral faults, to what we Christians call sins, that we will ever be able to see or acknowledge what is in fact good. Aristotle was not a determinist, nor was he a Christian, but he was quite aware of the depth of “wickedness,” as he called it, that our habits lead us to and the difficulty we have in changing the direction of our lives. Christianity is conscious of a deeper disorder of soul in original sin than Aristotle perhaps ever realized. Likewise, with its teaching on grace, it both provides a hope that originates outside of ourselves and a sobering caution to our Enlightenment-based optimism that we can and should do it all by ourselves. This latter position has, in effect, proposed that we “lover our sights” so that we are not bothered by what we “ought” to do but be content with some social engineering about what we do “do,” which is often very base and indeed, by all criteria, becoming more so.
Themes of decline and fall are normally addressed to powers that have achieved some status in the world. John Adams, the second American president, seems to have held that once a society is on a road of moral decline, it will be most doubtful if it can regain its moral center. Rarely are great powers defeated by outside forces until they have themselves become so disordered of soul that the task of defeating them will become relatively simple. One can say, in a certain sense, that the primary sign of decline takes place when a people stops begetting itself, stops reproducing its own kind and must turn to other peoples to supply the labor and military forces that are needed in any society. This is the factual situation in almost all Western countries. If one walks our streets today, it is striking how the languages of those who do the heavy manual and light service work is almost never English. This may not be all bad as it gives other people’s children a chance to become wealthier and to change their lives. But is a sign that we must now import labor; we do not beget in any numbers adequate to keep ourselves in viable condition.
The first of these materials that I want to reflect on deals directly with the question of whether some better way of begetting human beings than a family of one husband and one wife conceiving their own children from love and intercourse is to be promoted by science or politics. If we need children and families do not produce them, perhaps we ought to turn the job over to science. This thought has perhaps been conceived before in the realms of philosophy. The matter was delicately broached most famously in The Republic of Plato, whether as a warning or seriously still remains to be decided. In any case, Plato’s guardians were not to know their parents or their brothers and sisters. Everyone were to be called father, mother, brother, sister. Begetting was to be decided by the state as a reward for its own genetic and political purposes. Plato likens human breeding to the breeding of horses, thoroughbreds. His purpose is, evidently, a noble one, to produce the best human beings and the best polity. In this image, at least, he seems to indicate that virtue is a matter of breeding, not of habit and choice.
Christianity has not wholly rejected Plato. Monastic Orders are in one sense “Platonic.” That is, the lofty philosophic and moral ends that Plato wanted to achieve by his marriage proposals were to be achieved in another fashion. The vows of the Christian monasteries and convents were designed to have common property and a common life. New members were to “join” not by begetting but from the valid marriages already present in the society. The Christian guardians were to be free of too much reliance on material obligations so that they could devote their lives to the highest things as revealed to us in Christ’s “come follow me.”
In his Letter to the Study Week on Marriage and Family, the Holy Father is clearly aware of how far efforts to separate begetting and family have progressed. Scientific “means” have enabled children to be conceived outside the womb. Women can become temporary “nests” for fertilized ova to be implanted artificially. Many fertilized ova are discarded to assure one or two viable ones. The ultimate ambition would be to fertilize, gestate, and raise a human being totally outside the womb and apart from the care of given parents. The Holy Father writes:
The secular mentality regarding the truth about the person, marriage and the family has in a certain sense become even more radical. It is not only a question of debasing the individual moral norms of sexual and family ethics. The image of man/woman proper to natural reason and, in particular, to Christianity is opposed with an alternative anthropology. This latter rejects the fact, inscribed in corporeality, that the sexual difference is an identifying characteristic of the person; consequently, the concept of the family founded on the indissoluble marriage of a man and a woman, as the natural and basic cell of society, is critically challenged. Fatherhood and motherhood are conceived only as a private project, which can even accomplished with the application of biomedical technology, without the exercise of conjugal sexuality (p. 4).
This passage again reveals, as I have often noted with regard to the papacy’s position on marriage, that it is not science, but the Church, that defends sex as it is give to us. Science proposes in effect to “divide freedom and nature,” leaving us with sterile sexual acts in return for its control over the human child.
The Holy Father, thus, has clearly sensed what is at issue here. In examining what it is science is proposing to do to our very coming to be, he sees that the key issue is the protection of a man and a woman in their very ability to beget and care and educate their own children. They are alone in charge. But if we beget children by other means, we break that intimate bond that identifies us as the child of this father and this mother, from these families, grounding us through the personal relations of parents to the human reality through which we are called to eternal life. “To eliminate the corporeal mediation of the conjugal act as the place where new human life can originate,” the Pope continues, “means at the same time to degrade procreation from co-operation with God the Creator to the technically controlled ‘re-production’ of an exemplar of the species and thus lose the unique personal dignity of the child.” The dimensions of this issue could hardly be stated more succinctly.
This brings me to Professor William May’s essays on “Partial-birth Abortion and Catholics.” May is primarily concerned with Catholic legislators who are in a position to limit abortion or eliminate it but who do not vote for the means that might do so on various grounds from not seeing anything wrong with abortion to not wanting to “impose” one’s religion on someone else. Strictly speaking, abortion is not immediately a “religious” issue. It is primarily an issue of reason, of knowledge of what human life is and what begins it. As Professor May writes, “the point when human life begins is not a religious belief but a scientific fact – a fact on which there is clear agreement even among leading abortion advocates” (p. 6).
Since partial-birth abortion is a particularly heinous manner of killing the emerging baby, it has seemed to many that everyone would agree it was wrong and easily eliminated. This has not proved to be the case. The legal desire for allowing abortion of whatever form is so strong that some want to call it simply a “right,” to be protected by the state. When asked why this “right” is not likewise a “duty” to what is begotten, answers range from efforts to define person as not beginning till after birth to claiming that the child has no right to exist if it is not “wanted.” The various justifications for abortion are familiar. We might call abortion, with some justice, a “structure of evil.” It enables what is sinful to be easily, efficiently, and quietly done, though in fact all abortions leave their moral and spiritual consequences on the women, the medical profession, and the lawmakers of a country.
Abortion evidently takes place, to go back to the Holy Father’s earlier remarks about, when those who beget refuse to acknowledge what it is they do together. The whole Western legal tradition had originally sought to protect the family and the responsibility it had for its own condition. Western law often sought to be a “structure of good,” that is, to foster family care policies, not family death policies, as at present. Professor May’s analysis is particularly important because it is the first that I have seen that directly takes up the moral responsibility of Catholic legislators when these same legislators vote to keep abortion, particularly partial-birth abortion, legal. This is a point where political forms and personal conscience touch. As Professor May puts it: “The issue is clear. Catholic political leaders and legislators who, like the U.S. senators who refused to override President Clinton’s veto of a bill designed to protect unborn children from a particularly heinous and barbaric form of abortion (the Catholic votes made the difference) fail to ‘stand up for human life’ and to do what lies in their power to protect the inviolability of innocent human life act publically in a way contrary to their Catholic faith.” They objectively sin, in other words. The origin of the “structure of sin” is the inner life of individual persons. Soul-craft is state-craft.
In his Audience of August 25, 1999, John Paul II, repeated a teaching that appeared in his Address to the Puebla Conference at the very beginning of his Pontificate, namely, that the term “social sin” can never be used as if it did not relate to and involve personal sin. Collective guilt is the scourge of the closing century. Someone always puts in place that influences others in their wrong-doing. “Looking at the world today,” the Holy Father said in August,
we have to admit that there is a marked decline in the consciousness of sin. Because of widespread religious indifference or the rejection of all that right reason and revelation tell us about God, many men and women lack a sense of God’s Covenant and for his commandments. All too often the human sense of responsibility is blurred by a claim of absolute freedom, which it considers threatened and compromised by God, the supreme legislator (p. 7)
Notice how the Pope-Philosopher is constantly aware of the underlying intellectual issues. Behind the abortion issue, behind the utopias, behind the effort to produce perfect human beings in a laboratory lies the claim to “absolute human freedom.” And this “freedom” necessarily involves a rejection of a law of nature, of anything outside the inner will that would oblige it to pay attention to something else but itself. Ultimately, we are dealing with the claim in Genesis, which is the structure of every sin, to be ourselves the cause of the distinction of “good and evil.” We do not find the good already there. We cause it, subject to nothing else but our autonomy. All the killing of innocent life, all the legislation, all the “structures of evil” that support it are, basically, the claim to do as we will, whether as individuals or societies.
Christianity is not opposed to personal freedom. In fact, with Augustine, it might be said to have invented the idea. But freedom is precisely that, an either/or. “Personal freedom should be recognized and defended as a precious gift of God, resisting the tendency to lose it in the structures of social conditioning or to remove it form its inalienable reference to the Creator.” The Pope is quite aware that modern sociological methodology does in fact “lose” freedom in structures as well as removing it from any responsibility to anything other than itself, to autonomy, whereby it creates its own definitions of good and evil. This premise, in fact, is the only one that makes comprehensible the voting of legislators or the actions of doctors and women themselves and their supporters to claim that the human child is not an object of love and protection that determines all our subsequent moral actions. Only arbitrary, autonomous will that has no connection to reality can end up justifying such actions as partial-birth abortion. The action necessarily leads to a philosophy that permits the human actor to deny the reality, to deny what is.
In this reflection on “structures of sin” and “structures of good,” the Holy Father’s final words seem most to the point that sees in political forms or structures habits of deviant action or habits that enforce the acts of the will to the good by formulating themselves on natural law and the goodness of being as such. The classic Catholic position, following Aquinas, acknowledges that being is good – omne ens est bonum – while seeing with steady eyes that the Fall is a reality that still influences our wills to do terrible things to our kind, our most innocent kind. The teachings on grace remind us that while we should never underestimate our tendencies to evil, so likewise we should not underestimate out tendencies to the good. But under grace or under the influence of “autonomous will,” we still must choose. This choice defines the status of our being before God, defines whether, with Socrates, we know “it is never right to do wrong.”
“It is also true that personal sin always has a social impact,” John Paul II explains.
While he offends God and harms himself, the sinner also becomes responsible for the bad example and negative influences linked to his behaviour. Even when the sin is interior, it still causes a worsening of the human condition and diminishes that contribution which every person is called to make to the spiritual progress of the human community. In addition to all of this, the sins of individuals strengthen those forms of social sin which are actually the fruit of an accumulation of many personal sins. Obviously the real responsibility lies with the individuals, given that the social structure as such is not subject to moral acts.
How sound is this theology that refuses to see in polities or structures the subject of moral acts! Sometimes the force of habit and law, which after all is usually but a way to induce habits through repetition of acts prescribed by legislation, as Aquinas taught us, can make it seem that we must sin inevitably. But the accumulation of personal sins is what we mean by habits of social pattern. The center of focus is always there. Yet, the Christian analysis does not despair at its realistic sense of sin and repeated personal sins that so harm others because “the proclamation of Christ’s victory gives us certainty that event he strongest structures of evil can be overcome and replaced by the ‘structures of good.’”
Thus when we think of politicians who sin by not standing up to the truth, to the good, even if they know by their acts they lose, when we think of those who justify the killing of the most innocent of our kind, repeatedly, by a metaphysical theory of autonomous freedom or simply a refusal to accept the responsibility of our acts, we need not despair. It is true that scientists and philosophers and politicians are planning to replace the family, politically and scientifically. It may be possible to do this, to produce a race or huge numbers of scientifically produced human beings. The Holy Father simply tells us, “Don’t do it, don’t break the connection of love, body, life, and destiny wherein what comes to be among us is there by processes given to us by what causes us to be in the first place. The Fall makes us realize that it is possible, on a large scale, to reject the simplest of truths as it is possible to kill millions of conceived human lives and older ones too. In the end, to be a Christian means that the structures of good will defeat the structures of evil, not necessarily in this world, certainly not in utopia, but in the kingdom of God for which all our personal choices of what is good are made and against which all our choices of ourselves stand. As Cardinal Schotte implied, to defend the Second Commandment, it is necessary, ultimately, to defend the First. This is the central purpose of Revelation and its inspired institutions in the world.
WORSHIP AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
“What mankind has so far considered seriously have not even been realities but mere imaginings – more strictly speaking, lies prompted by the bad instincts of sick natures that were harmful in the most profound sense – all these concepts, ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘sin,’ ‘beyond,’ ‘truth,’ ‘eternal life.’ – But the greatness of human nature, its ‘divinity,’ was sought in them. – All the problems of politics, of social organization, and of education have been falsified through and through because one mistook the most harmful men for great men....”
Is it possible to discover that what is really “new” is something that we have already known about, but perhaps just did not notice? And can what is “really new” be totally devoid of grounding in what is? I ask these questions, in the beginning, because of a striking remark that Eric Voegelin made in Montreal in 1980. Voegelin’s words, in fact, point to an intellectual cul-de-sac, to a dead-end into which he held that modern thought had driven itself -- driven itself, for granted the premises of modern thought, there would be no one else but itself to drive it anywhere. The essential issue can be briefly stated: why has philosophy not been able to think itself out of its own theoretical problems? Why has the optimism of the Enlightenment ended with the skepticism of post-modernism? Voegelin’s comments thus seem particularly appropriate for the end of the second and beginning of the third Millennium.
“We can observe, for the last two hundred years, that every possible locale where one could misplace the ground (of being) has been exhausted,” Voegelin pointed out.
This expresses itself in the fact that we have, since the great ideologists of the middle and late nineteenth century, since Comte, Marx, John Stuart Mill, Bakunin (and so on), no new ideologist. All ideologies belong, in their origin, before that period; there are no new ideologies in the twentieth century. Even if one could find a new wrinkle in them, it wouldn’t be interesting because the matter has been more or less exhausted emotionally. We have had it.
The twentieth century, in its turn, was resigned in its pride to explore all the relatively insignificant ideological “locales” and “wrinkles” because the great theses had already been largely expounded by the time it began. We do seem to have encountered the boredom of the “relatively insignificant.”. The mind exhausted itself pursuing one humanly-grounded explanation after another, now a “locale,” now a “wrinkle,” each of which contained some truth and had a curious logical connection with the others.
Without knowing where else to turn to resolve problems presented by these ideologies and their “wrinkles,” we, the public, to use Voegelin’s graphic expression, “have had it.” And “what is it that is ‘exhausted’?” we ask. It is the modern hypothesis, the effort exclusively to explain ourselves to ourselves by ourselves with no need of anything but ourselves. It is the “modern project,” to use Strauss’ term, that exhausts us. But even more than that, what confuses and tires us is the insufficiency of the responses to that project, the insufficiency even of the revived classical reconsiderations that were proposed to remedy modernity’s most obvious errors and deficiencies. It is not so much that “God is dead,” but that the alternatives to God are likewise even more dead. What can these two symbolic “deaths” possibly imply about the nature of political philosophy? Are the “culture of death” and the boredom of the “end of history” included in the original design of our being? Are they perhaps indicators that there is no design, even in a world apparently full of design?
One hundred years ago, the philosopher who, almost with a certain sad disappointment, most mocked our public and religious explanations of reality, who most chided us for not seeing what we had chosen to become, was, of course, Nietzsche. He is still with us, still shocking us. The most “harmful men,” in Nietzsche’s view, are those who speak of such “concepts” as “God,” “soul,” “virtue,” “sin,” “beyond,” “truth,” and “eternal life.” These very words recall Machiavelli’s Fifteenth Chapter of The Prince, wherein he speaks derisively of the “imaginary kingdoms” of the ancient philosophers and theologians. These moral and transcendent words, for Nietzsche, refer not to realities but to “imaginings.” Even worse, they are simply “lies” that arise from “bad instincts of sick natures.” “Imaginings” might be innocent; lies are deliberate deceptions. The solutions for mankind’s ills were said, by the same men whom Nietzsche called “harmful,” to be found in these very lying “concepts.” “Great men,” however, knew that in seeking something there -- in “lies,” that is – political life was thereby “falsified.” This falsification is what Nietzsche chastised. He was himself a new kind of “great man.” His prince could “lie” because there was no transcendent truth whereby a lie was anything more than a legitimate tool to stay in power. He seemed vaguely aware, to be sure, that in a world full of liars, there could be no “lies,” which is why the traditional morality was kept for all but the prince.
For Nietzsche, as for Plato, the actual disorder of politics was itself reflective of a disorder of soul. Nietzsche never forgave Socrates, just after he took the hemlock, for having asked Crito to offer a cock in sacrifice to the god of healing, as if in dying he could be cured. In dying, Nietzsche thought, Socrates revealed his sickness, not his strength. To Nietzsche this much-admired Socratic piety was a sign monstrous cowardice, an anti-political act. Evidently, political life could best be itself without all these “imaginings.” That is to say, politics becomes something else, something absolute, something of pure will, something “modern,” when it is not seen in the light of these supposedly transcendent and corrupting realities, these lies. Politics is, finally, “what it is.” It has no limitation, no competition from revelational or metaphysical theories. It becomes itself, in effect, a substitute for revelation and metaphysics. It becomes, by a kind of logical necessity, the highest of the sciences, not just the highest of the practical sciences, as Aristotle held (1141a20-22).
Nietzsche wrote these things in a book called Ecce Homo. This title, to recall, contains the ironic Latin words of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, when, convinced that He was not guilty, he exposed Christ to the screaming crowds in his vain attempt to gain their sympathy and free Christ instead of Barabbas (John, 19, 6). Thus, there is a new kind of man we have been “beholding” in the last three hundred years. He is first rationalist man, then man of iron will, the man who has the courage to make his own laws for himself. But we have “had it” with him too; we are exhausted. But do we have a place to turn that is not another self-constructed reality that, on trial, proves yet again its inadequacy? What are we missing? Are we culpable for missing it?
The occasion, or perhaps the inspiration, for these reflections comes from the subtitle of Catherine Pickstock’s book, AfterWriting. Her subtitle is, unabashedly, bold: “The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy.” Indeed, the phrase “after writing” itself implies that writing is perhaps not enough, even deceptive. Not merely is it true that neither Socrates nor Christ wrote anything, but that the most important thing about them was not something precisely “against” writing, virtue, ideology, or intellectual argument but rather something “beyond” them without denying them.
On first coming across After Writing, we would not be surprised, I think, if this particular subtitle read, “The Liturgical Consummation of Theology.” That subtitle would not shock us or pique our interest. In that form, it would speak of a presumably normal topic of theological training and study. Rites would be where they were “supposed” to be, in theology, not in philosophy. We could, presumably without penalty, ignore them. It would cause no further interest or, as it were, raised eyebrows. We are not prepared to “hear” or “sing” the liturgy as a worthy philosophic exercise, to reflect on what it might mean to “worship,” though we do recall that the “ancient city” was not complete without its civic worship. We think such rites merely private occupations of the easily distracted. The obvious implication of Pickstock’s subtitle, however, suggests that something is “wrong” or “incomplete” about philosophy. And this title refers not to “bad” or erroneous philosophy, but to philosophy itself.
Moreover, what is bothersome in that subtitle is not merely the word “philosophy,” but also the word “consummation.” Consummation implies that some connection exists between liturgy and philosophy. We have so separated reason and revelation that we cannot “imagine,” to recall Nietzsche’s word, how they might, without contradiction, be related to each other. Was it possible that something was incomplete or unfinished in philosophy so that it could not consummate what it proposed by itself to itself? Is philosophy, by itself, the search for the “whole” or the finding of the “whole?” If it is the latter, it verges into divinity. If it is the former, the search, as our tradition (Plato, 486a) suggests against the “modern project,” does this mean that we are we left, in the end, with experiences and questions that we have not resolved because we cannot resolve them in philosophy? And if we cannot resolve them, are they therefore unresolvable in principle or merely unresolvable by us?
To juxtapose “worship” and “political philosophy” is no doubt deliberately provocative, if not downright rash. Already in Plato, we are aware of a certain “divine madness” or “enthusiasm” that lies just below or just above the surface of the political life, almost as if something is waiting to burst forth. “The Deity is the truly active source from which something happens to man,” Josef Pieper writes in his commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue central to the Pickstock book:
For this very reason we cannot speak simply of madness or frenzy without further qualifying the words. If the word enthusiasm were not so debased in English, it would in fact most fittingly describe what Plato intended, and indeed he himself uses it in the sense of “being filled with god.” In the middle of the Phaedrus, he speaks of a man thus possessed by mania. “The multitude regard him as being out of his wits, for they know not that he is full of a god [enthousiazon].
These words imply that it is quite possible to call things that have higher purpose “insane” or “mad” not because there is no point to them but because we refuse to accept them or we are not given understanding -- the problem of grace. Is it possible that the relative incompleteness of human things is intended? Deliberately challenging? On the philosophical and political levels, it is well to recall that in a classical democracy, the fool and the philosopher are indistinguishable because there is no principle of truth in the regime. This lack of ability to distinguish was why Socrates could live for seventy years in Athens. To most, he appeared odd, a fool. Will grace and revelation appear to reason as madness or mania? Does that mean that they contradict reason or do they stimulate it to be more reason?
Plato also tells us that, comparatively speaking, compared to divine things, that is, human things are not particularly important (417c; 804b). Aristotle similarly admonishes us in the Tenth Book of his Ethics not to listen to those who tell us to devote our lives to “human” things, the highest of which are economic and political things. We are rather to strain ourselves to know, even if it be little, the highest things, the truths of the contemplative life, the things that cannot be otherwise (1177b30-78a2). If human affairs are not really “serious,” not really important, what is? What are the things beyond politics to which we ought to spend our lives, even if what we learn about them is very little? Plato says in his Laws that we should spend out lives not in politics but in “singing, dancing, and sacrificing” (803e). If we smile at this proposal, is it because we are moderns? Singing, dancing, and sacrificing would seem to indicate that we need something worthy of such activities.
In the Fifth Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, moreover, Peter and John are forbidden to preach by local political authorities. They respond by asking, not entirely rhetorically, whether they should “obey God or men?” (Acts, 5:29). They knew what Socrates already knew; namely, that the men in power could kill them if they wished. But they also knew that death was not the worst evil. Obedience to God may well result in death at the hands of men, political men, even as, in this case, of religious men who were also political men. Yet if violent death and its fear are, as Hobbes was later to maintain, the worst evils, then the politician could control all ideas, religious and philosophical, that opposed him, because he did have the power of death with its consequent Machiavellian freedom, the freedom to use either evil or good means, to achieve his purposes.
Even Pontius Pilate, anticipating Hobbes, said ominously to Christ at His trial, “Surely you know that I have the authority to release you, and I have the authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10). There is every indication that Christ did know this. Notice that Christ did not piously reply to Pilate, “all capital punishment is wrong.” Rather He said, that “you would have no authority over me were it not given to you by God.” Plato, Aristotle, and Luke in Acts are in agreement that the polity does not itself define the highest things, even though it has legitimate authority when used properly in human affairs. Christ does not deny that Pilate, the Roman governor, has authority. When the threat of death by the state causes us to change our minds, the state rules all things through ruling our minds. When we die affirming our beliefs, however, the state is limited to what it is in the very act of claiming to be more than it is.
“The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges ‘what harms me is harmful in itself’, he knows himself to be that which in general first accords honor to things, he creates values.” These prophetic words of Nietzsche near the end of the nineteenth century define what modern man thinks he is, the creator of his own “values.” They remind us of the dangers of apparently good words like “values.” If we are creators of our values, of our reward, then what is accorded “honor” is nothing less than ourselves. What gives the “honor” is also ourselves. We create it and distribute it by the movement of our will subject to nothing other than ourselves.
“Rights” and “values” are modern, not ancient or medieval, words. They are rooted in this idea that we can “create” them literally from “nothing.”. Rights come from Hobbes. Values come from Max Weber. They both indicate the same thing about the modern project, that we have a “right” to everything, that we can only have “science” about means. Values are what we “create” and choose to live by, with no rational ability to determine why one value is better than another. Rights and values are both understood in modern philosophy to be rooted in will, in arbitrary will. If God becomes pure arbitrary will, from Duns Scotus and Occam on, as Catherine Pickstock has sown, then so is his image. On this basis, what is could always be otherwise. No objective ground exists. The foundation has no foundation.
Man thus is not measured; he measures, even himself. When he examines reality, he finds only himself. His scientific methods allow him to see only what such methods, constructed by himself, allow him to see. On defining himself by declaring his “rights” and his “values,” he constructs a polity that excludes all but himself. Nietzsche was right to see the weakness of a polity built on the collective will of weak men willing only themselves. Nietzsche was not wrong to wonder about “greatness.” Man is not only to live, but to live “well,” as Aristotle said. Since man does not ground his own being, it seems strange, if not impossible, that he could give greatness to himself even when he does great deeds and speaks great words.
It is my thesis here that Voegelin is right. We have had presented to us, in effect, all the intellectual “wrinkles.” The twentieth century did not produce anything new. Reason will not by itself find its way out of what will has chosen to construct for itself. Is there a conceivable alternative? Recently, a student sent me on e-mail the following definitions of justice, mercy, and grace. I do not know where he found them, but they are, when read together, both insightful and amusing. In a sense, they collectively make the point that I wish to propose in these reflections about worship and political philosophy; namely, that the highest things may not come to us by our own reasonings and our own makings, but they still may come to us in another form if and only if we choose to accept them. Political philosophy, in reflecting on political things, naturally comes to queries, to questions that it cannot resolve. That is to say, its very being and status requires it to acknowledge an openness that it cannot close by its own efforts. Why after all did the best existing states kill Socrates and Christ?
Justice, so the explanation went, is when “we get what we deserve.” Mercy, on the other hand, is when “we don’t get what we do deserve.” And grace is when we unexpectedly do “get what we don’t deserve.” All in all, these are pretty sound definitions. We live in a time when the churches seem to be primarily interested in “justice,” not grace. At times, they seem to think it their primary function to make the state work better by its own means. And, as Augustine showed, grace does have this effect. Modern religious leaders often add “faith and justice,” but rarely “faith, justice, freedom, and mercy.” Even rarer do we hear about “grace,” though this is the most profound reality of them all. This is why creation and redemption are both “graced” topics; neither the one nor the other is “deserved,” though mercy and forgiveness have the added notion of the response of grace to injustice, even political injustice. The end of the famous “Prologue” to the Gospel of John even speaks of “grace upon grace,” as if to imply a certain unanticipated superabundance in reality (John, 1:16).
What I am concerned about here, then, is in fact the Second Commandment – “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” Are the “strange gods” that we have before us – a letter in the Washington Times recently affirmed that “secular humanism” was also a “religion” – related to the “liturgical consummation of philosophy?” If we start from within the world, within philosophy, it is indeed quite possible that we will arrive, at best, at a “first mover.” This step is not to be minimized, of course. But if there is a proper way to “worship” God, it seems quite clear that lack of this worship would send the members of any existing polity off into myriads of directions, into ever new “locales,” seeking the reasons why their explanations are insufficient or even corrupting. Thus, I do not propose beginning from reason to see what kind of answers that it can come up with, though there is nothing wrong with this beginning. Rather I propose, at least as an non-investigated alternative, beginning from proper worship as found in revelation to explain why it is that personal and public lives are disordered to the extent that they lack its presence.
Political philosophy, needless to say, has, on the face of it, little to do with mercy and grace. It’s realm is justice - legal, distributive, and rectificatory, as Aristotle described the various kinds of justice. Rarely do political things seem to cross these higher notions, though perhaps it happens more frequently than we might guess. Revelation itself admonishes us to be at least just, a fact that itself makes us wonder about how these two are related. Just why are some things found both in reason and revelation? To be sure, the notion of clemency is related to mercy. Governors and executives can grant pardons in the name of some greater good. And benefactions, free giving, is known in human affairs. Compassion is likewise known, though it has frequently become not just a means of understanding another’s suffering, but a tool to deny the wrongness of certain things classically considered to be evil. Justice, moreover, is never so perfect that the world has no need of things like punishment, let alone things like fraternity, grace, and mercy to allow us to live with our faults and sins, having acknowledged them. Hannah Arendt, I believe, said that the most politically important of the Christian virtues was forgiveness. Without forgiveness, justice would lead to recurring vengeance. No polity could rest with its actual situation, with the city composed of many less than perfect men if justice, the terrible virtue, were the sole element present within its exchanges.
What has particularly intrigued me is the notion that modern ideology is the result of an effort to explain things in a manner other than that set down in reason and revelation. When in modernity revelation ceased to play an intimate, active role, we have seen arise the situation that Voegelin described, that is, a gradual, increasing exhaustion of reasons that would ground our “being.” Voegelin, like Nietzsche, actually thought that the reason for the rise of ideological, rationalist explanations of reality was, in fact, the practical loss of faith of Christians in their own understanding of the world order. Notice, that ideology here is not conceived as a first order explanation but as a substitute for something that is lost -- faith, to be precise. Since the modern human being cannot rest with the reality before him unexplained, unexplained even by himself, he seeks some alternative, some “wrinkle,” as it were, that would finally close off any explanation not totally under the control and guidance of the human will an mind.
But the human will is only creative in the sense of art, not of reality itself. What is, including the human will itself, is not the product of its own making. Human action is action having been first acted upon. Even our knowledge, to be active, depends in the first instance on something that is not ourselves. We do not first think, then discover reality; we first see things, then we begin to think. This awareness leads naturally to the question of the relation of theoretical and practical intellect. It questions the primacy of practical intellect that resulted when the will knew no limitations other than its own values, choices, or rights. Morality, how we ought to act, cannot begin with our wills but with our understanding of how things are apart from our will, with theoretical intellect. This is not to deny the possibility of our willing not to see.
In order to understand where we are, would it be possible to re-propose political philosophy in such a manner that the “queen of the social sciences” (political philosophy) and the “queen of the sciences” (theology) be approached from the side of the latter? Here, I do not propose an artificial “faith” on the part of the unbeliever, but I do propose an intelligent understanding of what is proposed in revelation, if nothing else as an intellectual curiosity that seems to have some relation to issues not found satisfactorily answered in reason. The question that I want to propose is whether political philosophy has sought autonomy for itself, has sought to elevate itself as the queen of the social sciences, and ultimately of the sciences themselves, because it, unwittingly perhaps, provided an alternate object of worship of sorts, when the true object of worship was either unknown or rejected? I take seriously, in other words, Augustine’s “city of man” because his “city of God” contains so many answers that ought not to be there solely on the basis of accident. Augustine’s political realism with his listing of the several hundred different possible ideas of the gods.
How does one even go about posing this question in the modern intellectual world so that it will be intelligible and not simply ridiculous? No doubt, Catherine Pickstock’s acute analysis of the classic Tridentine Mass of the Roman Rite provides an immediate occasion for this consideration. Her approach is through a minute analysis of the post-modern philosophers whose theories of language, objectivity, and interpretation have locked them not merely into themselves but into a kind of vast unknowability about themselves and reality. They have sought a kind of assurance of freedom in professing the inability of the mind to know things and what other minds might think. It is not merely that in knowing themselves they know something of reality. Rather, since they cannot know themselves or others, they cannot know reality.
We have here not merely the dead end of modernity, but the dead end itself. I have the impression that this dead end was reached, a dead end that included the fall of communism, because of a refusal to return back to the original sources that were rejected in the formation of modernity. There is no place, no “locale” to which we can turn if we follow the logic of the premises on which the modern mind was built. The argument is not whether this dead end exists, nor whether it is the result of a logical progression of modern thought from modernity to post modernity through the great constructs of political ideology. It is whether there is an alternative, even if that alternative does not come directly from reason.
The Holy Father has recently drawn our attention to philosophy and reason, Fides et Ratio. Those who know St. Thomas are familiar with the idea of grace building on nature, of reason not contradicting faith and faith not destroying reason. This implies a certain intrinsic connection between reason and faith. It is important to state this relationship properly. We cannot conclude to certain truths about God as given to us in revelation on the basis of our reason alone. Otherwise we would be gods ourselves, in fact the great temptation of modernity. But it is possible to attempt to understand the order of things revealed and to ask whether they relate in any fashion to what we know in reason. It is possible to become more “philosophical” because we seek better to understand what is revealed. We do not in principle exclude what makes some sense even if it does not come from reason.
Lucy lies on her back, her head propped up against the piano while Schroeder is playing Beethoven. She muses out loud, “if you really liked me, you would give me presents.” To this, Schroeder rises up on his piano bench with hauteur, “if you really liked me, you wouldn’t expect any presents.” In the third scene, he returns to playing the piano while she is on her side with a quizzical look. Finally, with Schroeder indifferently playing, she reflects, “Either way, I end up not getting any presents.” In the end, do we end up our theological-philosophical problem by getting no presents? The notion of “present,” of gift, of grace is the essence of what I want to say here about worship and political philosophy.
No state, consisting as it does of a multiplicity of citizens bound together in some defined relationship, is a proper subject or object of worship. Only individual persons, properly speaking, worship. If they worship themselves, we call it properly pride, superbia. The being of human beings is good, but it is not itself worthy of worship. Human beings also, normally, worship together – the singing, the dancing, and the sacrificing. In the abstract, many varied rites might be proposed as ways to properly worship God. The question that the history of classic, medieval, and modern philosophy presents is whether the central act of worship proposed in revelation is so fundamental that it “consummates” philosophy, that is, resolves its unanswered questions in a fashion that the coherence of reason and revelation is, if not necessary, is certainly intelligible. But this intelligibility must always carry the proviso that it would not have been arrived at unless the impetus of revelation had not been somehow addressed to it.
Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, in a remarkable address to Italian bishops, recounts a thousand-year old story, probably apocryphal, of certain Russian envoys from Kiev who were sent by Prince Vladimir in search of a proper religion for their kingdom. As they probably did not know of Buddhism, Hinduism, or China, with Protestants not yet around, they examined Islam in Bulgaria, Judaism, and Catholics among the Germans. Finally, they went to Santa Sofia in Constantinople. There they were struck with wonder by the liturgy and its beauty. Ratzinger uses this occasion to reflect on the nature of liturgy, of worship. I emphasize this passage out in the light of Aristotle’s notion of the highest things being for their own sakes.
The Byzantine liturgy, Ratzinger pointed out, is not primarily “missionary”; it is not directed to non-believers. Its roots were entirely “within the faith.” What goes on is the “acclamation of faith.” The liturgy presupposes “an ‘initiation,’ only someone who has entered into the mystery with his life can participate in it....” “The Byzantine liturgy,” Ratzinger goes on, “was not a way of teaching doctrine and was not intended to be. It was not a display of the Christian faith in a way acceptable or attractive to onlookers. What impressed onlookers about the liturgy was precisely its utter lack of an ulterior purpose, the fact that it was celebrated for God and not for spectators, that its sole intent was to be before God and for God.... Essentially, Catherine Pickstock stresses the same quality in the Tridentine Mass. If there is a point within the world where men contemplate and worship God, the city can consequently find its proper dimensions. The highest things came among us; they are not initially humanly made or constructed, however much they are, like the Byzantine and Tridentine Mass, open to the “creative” genius of artists, poets, and musicians.
In this sense, worship has rather much to do with political philosophy We are little prepared, I admit, to grant the fact that already existing among us, with origins in revelation, not directly in philosophy, though with certain intimations from it, a proper way to worship God is established. We are loathe to admit, furthermore, that the neglect, corruption, or unknownness of this way has consequences even in the political order through the restless souls of men unable or unwilling to find a proper object of their striving in any locale or wrinkle. Aristotle constantly refers to the theoretic mind in its seeking of things “for their own sakes.” Such are the very words that Ratzinger uses when explaining the reaction of the Russian officials to beholding the liturgy of Byzantium. It utterly lacked “an ulterior purpose” beyond its own doing. It is the Second Commandment; the “I am who am” of Exodus.
Worship, no doubt, presupposes doctrine and right living, but that is not its own purpose. It looks outward from its depth in inwardness, not to the city, but through it. Why is this such an important point? Are we not to worry about the later rigidity of the Byzantine state and church, about the widespread rejection of the Mass as the central human act of worship? Has not the Roman rite suddenly gone over to the very missionary and social concerns that Ratzinger warned about, so that the Mass no longer causes this awe that he and Pickstock understood? Much of the Protestant world gave up some or all of this full liturgy at the Reformation. The rest of the world barely heard of it, if it did hear of it at all. Thus, the proposition that the existence of a mode of worship that derives from revelation and is intended to celebrate the unbloody Sacrifice of the Cross as the central act of worship will seem if not un-ecumenical, at least impractical.
To conclude, I want to inquire whether, once the outline of the act of worship is set down in revelation, whether the reason why modernity has been in such turmoil is because it sought and could not find an alternative to it? It exhausted the “locales” and all the “wrinkles” that might propose something else. The orthodox position, no doubt, at least in so far as it has not itself imitated this same modernity, is that no alternative is to be found. A “reason” exists for this mode of worship that goes to the very heart of the sort of beings we are created to be, supernatural, not natural, from the beginning. “God,” “soul,” “truth,” “eternal life” -- Nietzsche’s “lies” – are the ground of our being.
What is proposed here is not proposed defiantly, but rather sadly, with a sense of loss at what might be, of what ought to be. If one examines the vast effort that the current Holy Father has given to conversation with other branches of Christianity, with other religions, with philosophers, with anyone really, it is clear that the spirit of the endeavor is honestly to see what truths are held in common, whether many or few. With regard to those in which there is difference, we must to continue to see the other’s point of view. Likewise, this same consideration accepts the principle that faith is a free gift. If one does not have the “gift” of faith, why on earth talk about it except to those who have it? Why would worship have universal significance? Those who reject the faith or who never have had heard of it remain human beings and members of some existing polity. It is true that the faith is to be preached to all nations, as if to suggest that there is something about it that is pertinent to all nations whatever it is they now hold as the structural principle of their living together as this or that nation, their “foundation myth,” to recall Plato.
This reflection on worship and political philosophy thus brings us back to the question of “the liturgical consummation of philosophy.” Catherine Pickstock does not say “the liturgical consummation of political philosophy” because she understands that it is not “the state,” though it is the political philosopher and the politician, that can worship. If the order of polity is a reflection of the order of our souls, as the classical writers taught us, we can suspect that the completion or “consummation” of philosophy comes about when a proper object of worship is “given” to us with a proper indication of how it is we are to worship. Once this is in existence, all other idols, including the state when we make it an idol, will fail. We, who are readers of Plato, cannot be too surprised at this.
At the end of his discussion of “classical philosophy” in “What is Political Philosophy?”, Leo Strauss warns us not to be charmed either by mathematical certainty or by the “humble awe” engendered by “meditating on the human soul and its experiences.” Philosophy must mate “courage and moderation” to resist these charms. Sometimes philosophy seems to produce very little, like Sisyphus and his burden, its achievements and goal are very different. Out of frustration, philosophy can appear “ugly,” though Strauss seems to admit, unlike the analogy with Sisyphus, that something of the “goal” is seen. Philosophy must be “sustained, accompanied, and elevated by eros.” It is, he concludes, in an evocative phrase, “graced by nature’s grace.”
Does indeed “nature” have a “grace?” In nature has a “grace,” is it still grace? And what might a philosophy be that is precisely “elevated” by “eros,” the noble Platonic word? Strauss, at the same time, seemingly both denies and intimates more than he implies. The envoys were, perhaps, more perceptive, or at least, more awe-struck, not by meditating on their own souls, but by the worship in Santa Sofia. The “mating” of courage and moderation may well require, not the “lowering.” but the raising of our sights.
If philosophy is “consumed” in liturgy, then, it does not mean that philosophy ceases to be philosophy. It means that it is all the more important that philosophy remain itself. Nietzsche’s “imaginings” and “lies” are precisely what we most need, as even he intimated in his disappointment at those who really do not believe. Nor does it mean that the city ceases to the city. It does mean that we are open to gifts that compete what we are, that we do not look to the city for what it cannot do, however tempted it always seems to be to propose itself as an object of worship. It does mean that our natural limits are not in vain. It does mean that, as philosophers and political philosophers, we can recognize that answers are posed in revelation to questions we legitimately ponder but are unable to resolve in our own contemplations. “The Deity is the truly active source from which something happens to man.” Justice means getting what we deserve. Mercy means not getting something we do deserve. Grace means getting something that we don’t deserve. Grace upon grace.
9) Other essays, besides those devoted to St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and the Papacy listed below, related to the topic of Christian Political Philosophy: 1) "The Christian Guardians," in The Distinctiveness of Christianity; 2) "The Person from Within: The Foundations of Social Teachings," in Does Catholicism Still Exist?; 3) "Political Theory: The Place of Christianity," in Essays on Christianity and Political Philosophy, Edited by George Carey and James V. Schall, (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1984), pp. 93-106; 4) "Political Philosophy and Christianity," in Religion, Wealth, and Poverty; 5) "The Altar as the Throne," in Churches on the Wrong Road, Edited by Stanley Atkins and Theodore McConnell (Chicago: Gateway, 1986), 193-238; 6) "Catholicism and the American Experience," in The Best of This World, Edited by Michael Scully (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1986), pp. 1-13;
7) "Catholicism, Business, and Human Priorities," in The Judeo-Christian Vision and the Modern Corporation, Edited by Oliver Williams and John Houck (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), pp. 107-40; 8) "The Teaching of Centesimus Annus," Gregorianum, Rome, 74 (#1, 1993), 17-43