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.