19) ESSAYS: PHILOSOPHICAL, POLITICAL, ECONOMIC.
New Series: 1) “Philosophy: Why What Is Useless Is the Best Thing About Us,” 2) “What Do Philosophers Know?” 3) “On the Paradoxical Place of Political Philosophy in the Structure of Reality,” 4) “Modernity: What Is It?” 5) “On the Problem of Philosophic Learning,” 6) “On the Academic Discipline of Political Science,” 7) “On the Measure and Conservation of Human Things,”8) “Why Is Political Philosophy Different?” 9) “Worship and Political Philosophy,” 10) “Fides et Ratio: Approaches to a Roman Catholic Political Philosophy.”
1) Published in Vital Speeches, LXV (August 1, 1999), 628-32. It also appears in The Unseriousness of Human Affairs. Originally an Address at Department of Philosophy, University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Why What Is Useless Is the Best Thing about Us
“Intelligence (phronēsis, prudentia) does not control wisdom or the better part of the soul, just as medical science does not control health. For it does not use health, but only aims to bring health into being; hence it prescribes for the sake of health but does not prescribe to health. Besides, saying that intelligence controls wisdom would be like saying that political science rules the gods because it prescribes about everything in the city.”
– Aristotle, The Ethics, VI, 13, 1145a8-12.
“Dissipation: The mother of dissipation is not joy but joylessness.”
-- Nietzsche, “Mixed Opinions and Maxims,” #77, 1879.
Let me begin with a sentence found early in Cicero’s Dialogue De Senectute: “No praise, then, is too great for philosophy!” They are words that shall guide our reflections here. However, we shall mean by philosophy not just the moral philosophy that Cicero praised, nor merely political philosophy that wonders how to render the forceful politician benevolent to the truths of the theoretic life, but philosophy as such, the philosophy that includes metaphysics along with moral and political philosophy. And yes, I do say that philosophy as such is “useless”; yes, I do maintain it is the best thing about us, for it leads to the highest things, to things even perhaps beyond philosophy but not apart from its most perceptive inquiries. In short, there are things “worth doing for their own sakes,” as the Greeks taught us with surprising precision.
The choice of modern man, it is said in a famous book (After Virtue), is between Aristotle and Nietzsche. The wit of Nietzsche makes the choice of Aristotle quite sensible, though the philosophy of Aristotle, since it requires discipline and virtue, makes the dire conclusions of Nietzsche seem almost inevitable. So it is not totally arbitrary that I begin these thoughts on philosophy with, in addition to Cicero’s praise, two brief citations, one from this same Aristotle and one from Nietzsche. At first sight, neither passage will seem to direct itself to the stated title and subtitle of this lecture, neither to philosophy nor to what is best about us. Aristotle talks of prudence, health, and the gods; Nietzsche notices an ironic connection between dissipation and joy, or better joylessness.
We are all, no doubt, most interested in both health and joy, though perhaps not for the same reasons. Even if we are not healthy, we certainly desire to be so. Even if we be joyless, we want to know joy; otherwise we would not suspect that we lacked it. Indeed, if we are dissipated, we probably, at some point, long for order in our lives. And suffering, which implies the lack of health and perhaps of joy, is not, in the ultimate order of things, totally without purpose. “Is it better to suffer evil or to do it?” is a very ancient and hardly indifferent question already found authoritatively answered in The Apology of Socrates. And if it is better to suffer evil than to do it, we still do not, on theoretic grounds, seek to encourage the existence of the evil just so we can suffer. Suffering evil, though we are reluctant to admit it, may indeed be evil’s ultimate remedy. Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” remains both mysterious and instructive in this light. “Man learns by suffering,” the Greek poet observed. And what does he learn? Surely he learns that just as the purpose of war is peace, so the purpose of suffering is health, even beatitude, the highest activity of health.
Aristotle’s rather enigmatic observation that medical science prescribes for the sake of health but not to health contains one of the most fertile insights in all of philosophy (1145a10). For it says nothing less than that when we have our health, “health produces health,” as he put it in another place (1144a5). That is, once a doctor has helped to cure us (ultimately, nature cures us), once we are healthy, the doctor’s task ends. Qua doctor, he can tell us no more. The question then arises, “now what?” What do we “do” when we are healthy, when we are no longer concerned about our health and how to recover it or preserve it? When we are not confined to a hospital, what is to occupy us? If we are made to be healthy, what is the activity of health? What is the life of “health” that “health” produces? It must be more than just keeping our health. For starters, St. Thomas points out in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics (#1075) that “proper adaptation to (human) affairs and people is more laborious and difficult than knowing remedies in which the whole art of medicine consists.”
When we are healthy, we do not notice the functioning of our various powers and capacities; we are outgoing, noticing what it is that fascinates or interests us. Does man, then, have a peculiar activity that sets him apart, something he delights in just doing? And if he does, would this delightful activity be a mere unintended accident? Is his given being complete without the activity that follows on what he is? “Do the carpenter and the leather-worker have their functions and actions, while a human being has none, and is by nature idle (in vain), without function?” Aristotle asks. “Or just as an eye, hand, foot and, in general, every bodily part apparently has a function, may we likewise ascribe to a human being some function besides all these?” (1097b28-33). And if there is such a function, is it best to be described as “necessary” or “useful”? Necessary always points to the un-necessary. The “useful” always points to what is beyond use. The part points to the whole. Our hand, the ultimate tool in the universe, that “part” by which our mind gets outside of mind to change things, is not a hand if it is not attached to us, as Aristotle also remarked.
The “Little Prince” said that it is the time that we “waste” with our friends that really counts. Is the world so occupied that we have no time to waste? Why do we like to play and to watch others playing? Plato said that human life is not “serious.” Man is the “plaything” of the gods (803c). In saying this, he was not denigrating us, but praising our lives for what they are. It is not “necessary” that we exist. Yet, we do exist. We exist for a reason not rooted in determinism. The fact that we exist but need not exist expresses the most profound thing about us. It implies that we exist because of a choice, a love, a freedom, grounded in what is beyond necessity. It implies that our lives should reflect this non-necessity, this freedom to be what we are not of ourselves.
Aristotle told us not to listen to those who tell us, being human, to devote our lives to human things (1177b32-78a2). Such “human” things are political things, economic things, things that seem to take all of our time, things that have their place in the order of reality yet do not describe what we are really about. It is all right to spend much time on political and economic things, for it is permitted to be what we are, finite, mortal beings. It takes a lot of trouble to keep us going. But Aristotle added, if man were the highest being in the universe, these human and political things would constitute the highest science (1141a20-22). But man is not the highest being in the universe. Thus political science does not “rule the gods,” as our introductory citation reminds us. Yet, Aristotle tells us, to spend as much time as we can on the highest things, even if what we acquire is little by comparison. To be human we must be more than human, a truth that we are often loathe to accept.
Aristotle called our capacity to contemplate the highest things precisely “divine,” even while he was sure we are not gods and do not want to become gods. Thinking about friendship, we do not want to cease to be what we are. We don’t want our friend to become a king or a god (1159a5-11). But still we could be tempted to be gods, to make political science the highest science, to claim that the whole order of things, especially human things, falls under the power of our deliberative choice. If we are to have an activity that is called “divine,” it always remains under the light of what we are. The highest things are given to us; we do not make them to be what they are, including ourselves.
Though we are sometimes told, sometimes tell ourselves, that joy will result from dissipation, it never quite does. Even Nietzsche warns us. We can take the truth of this observation about dissipation on faith, on the testimony of others, or we can test it ourselves, as I believe the young Augustine did. The results are the same. “Do not envy those who do evil,” one of the Psalms cautions us. We find that the rather cynical but perceptive Nietzsche is quite right. How could a mere philosopher like him know so much? By listening to other philosophers much less logical than he, we suspect. Plato talked of a kind of “divine madness,” as if to say that our senses and our minds are not given solely for their own exercise but to hear and see, to be wholly absorbed by, what is not ourselves, to hear and see what is. Nietzsche’s word, “joylessness,” is one I find to be remarkably provocative, as he intended it to be. “You will not find what you are looking for,” he implies, “if you look for it in dissipation.” He too is here on the side of the gods. “What are we looking for?” we cannot but ask ourselves. We do look and seek, even if we deny that we do.
In this regard, I am fond of citing a passage from a lecture Eric Voegelin gave in Montreal in 1980, probably in a context not too different from this one. “I find students are frequently flabbergasted, especially those who are agnostics,” he tells us,
when I tell them that they all act, whether agnostic or not, as if they were immortal. Only under the assumption of immortality, of fulfillment beyond this life, is the seriousness of action intelligible which they actually put into their work and which has a fulfillment nowhere in this life however long they may live. They all act as if their lives made sense immortally, even if they deny immortality, deny the existence of a psyche, deny the existence of a Divinity – in brief, if they are just the sort of fairly corrupt average agnostics that you find among college students today. One shouldn’t take their agnosticism too seriously, because they act as if in fact they weren’t agnostics.
Basic principles operate in us even when we deny their existence. It is safer to watch what someone does rather than what he says.
Refusal to observe the commandments or to practice the virtues, declaring our absolute liberty, may often seem positively “romantic.” We delight in being “rebels” with or, even without, a cause. Be it noted, however, it is not the clergy who are here alerting us to these moral dangers. It is not even Aristotle. It is the man who told us that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” On this basis, on our voluntarily killing God in our souls, Nietzsche tells us to be free, or better, perhaps, he tells us that we are condemned to be free. But in our absolute freedom, we still know dissipation, a rather dull, repetitive life, in fact, as St. Thomas implied in a famous passage (I-II, 91, 6). If, contrary to Nietzsche’s prophet, however, God is not dead, is it still possible to hope that joy is open to us even when we discover that our ways do not produce it, when we discover in fact that we ourselves do the evils that cause others to suffer, that lead them to the joylessness of dissipation?
We can at least conceive the divinity in terms of mercy and not merely justice. Justice, the terrible virtue, as I call it, may not be the last word in the universe. Perhaps the world is not created in justice, as St. Thomas implied it wasn’t (I, 21, 4). Knowing ourselves, we could well hope that it isn’t. But if God is indeed dead, while dissipation still leads to joylessness, little is left to us but despair. Nietzsche tells the truth, in his own way. For many moderns, his testimony is more credible than that of God Himself. Ironically, God too promised joylessness to be the result of dissipation. Nietzsche’s biting aphorisms often inadvertently, or, I sometimes think, intentionally, rediscover, point to a lost Christianity. Nietzsche’s main complaint about the Last Christian, the one who died on the Cross, was that His followers, judging by their actions, did not believe in Him. About a century after the death of Nietzsche, when the Pope visited St. Louis, American media was fond of ferreting out famous and ordinary Catholics who affirmed before the world that they “disagreed” with the Pope about how to live. They would have confirmed Nietzsche in his estimate about the weakness of faith. Modernity, if I can put it that way, is nothing other than inventing a replacement for what is not believed. The content of what is originally believed might well be better than anything that we might concoct for ourselves. This is the judgment under which modernity lives.
Josef Pieper once remarked that “joy is a by-product.” He meant by this curious observation that we cannot make joy an object of our choice or even of our intellect. It is not another “thing,” nor is it, like health, something a medical practitioner can restore. We can perhaps recognize it when we have it, but we cannot buy it, demand it, claim a right for it. It seems to belong to that category of things that must be “given” to us. We must be the sort of people capable of receiving gifts. Contrary to our Declaration, but in agreement with C. S. Lewis, we do not have a “right” to happiness, or even its pursuit. Who would enforce the right? Is our happiness “due” to us in justice, or does it come from some other, higher source? Who would develop a public policy to obtain this happiness? Who would define it? What would we be pursuing? We can only deliberate, as Aristotle says, about what we might bring about by our own purposeful actions (1112a20-32). We are quite sure that we want to be happy, that we do all we do to be happy. Likewise, we want to be joyful. We even know that we are made for joy, but we know that joy is not a direct object of our choosing. Joy is rather the result of something else. Happiness is an activity; joy is a kind of receptivity. The second follows from the first, and the first depends on our doing what is virtuous, what is right.
Pieper’s beautiful words on joy as something that arrives as a result of something else are worth our pondering together:
Man can (and wants to) rejoice only when there is a reason for joy. And this reason, therefore, is primary, the joy itself secondary. But are there not countless reasons for joy? Yes. But they can all be reduced to a common denominator: our receiving or possessing something we love – even though this receiving or possession may only be hoped for as a future good or remembered as something already past. Consequently, one who loves nothing and no one cannot rejoice, no matter how desperately he wishes to....
Joy is the receiving and possessing of what we love; it is not something that we command or demand. We may never possess what we love and thus we may not be full of joy. But if we love nothing, no joy is possible.
John Paul II made an unexpected remark in Fides et Ratio when he said that, in truth, everyone is a philosopher (#30). I presume he did not intend to denigrate philosophy departments, let alone the diligent philosopher who goes it alone, as all must at some point. That it is possible for everyone to know and know the truth is a very Aristotelian remark, in a way. The Philosopher himself recognized, that since we are all in immediate contact with being, with what is, it is possible for ordinary folks just to see the truth of things, even if they may not exactly be able to explain what they see in complicated or technical language (1180b17-20). I conclude from this reflection that joy and happiness are not to be conceived merely as something open to a few, to the philosophers. Likewise, I am rather sure that it was not the philosophers who made us most aware that what is is open to everyone.
Yet, I am here to praise the philosopher. After all, it was Aristotle, the Philosopher, who remarked, in a touching passage, that “we can do fine actions even if we do not rule earth and sea; for even from moderate resources we can do actions expressing virtue. This is evident to see, since many private citizens seem to do decent actions no less than people in power do – even more, in fact. ... The life of someone whose activity expresses virtue will be happy” (1179a4-9). In a declining, corrupt but prosperous civil society, this may well be our only charter of freedom, our only avenue to both joy and happiness. The initial battles, I think, are not fought in the public forum or in the wars of the world, but in the hearts of men, especially in the hearts and minds of the dons, the intellectual and clerical dons. We all need enough philosophy to give us a chance to estimate erring intellectuals.
Charlie Brown is lying on his back with his head propped on a stone for a pillow. Lucy is looking at him in this prone position, but with some confusion. Charlie says to her, “If I tell you something, Lucy, will you promise not to laugh?” Naturally she replies, “I promise.” In the next scene, Charlie, still on his back, tells her earnestly that “this is very personal, and I don’t want you to laugh.” “You have my solemn promise,” she assures him. In the third frame, Charlie explains his concern, “Sometimes, I lie awake at night listening for a voice that will cry, ‘We like you, Charlie Brown!’” In the fourth scene, all we see is Charlie flipped over on his head, while Lucy, with not a thought of her solemn promises, screams in utter delight at the absurdity of this nightly voice, “Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!” It is all there, isn’t it? – the desire to be taken seriously, the fear that it is all rather silly, these highest things, this desire to be loved, to know joy.
Aristotle discovered in us human beings, besides the fact that we are rational and political animals, that we are also homines risibiles. We are the beings who laugh -- and perhaps, recalling Lucy and Charlie Brown, the beings who are laughed at. This same Aristotle had reminded us that there is a time and place for laughter. The buffoon who laughs at everything and everybody is not a charming character, nor is the somber man who laughs at nothing (1128a34-b5). Aristotle also noticed that the ability to laugh is a sign of metaphysical intelligence. Why would he think this? It is because he realized that our laughter results from our ability to see the relationship or lack of it among things? And the ability to see relations is the first requirement of the metaphysician and the essence of our ability to laugh. Laughter means that we see that what is put to side-by-side does not go together, or that what is not in proximity ought to be joined. And we cannot help but thinking that this capacity for laughter is connected to our joy, which is a by-product.
Chesterton’s profound remark, that the one thing that the Son of God did not show us while He was on earth was His “mirth,” did not presume that the Lord did not know mirth. Indeed, it was Chesterton’s view that the sort of joy for which we are made is so much more delightful than anything we can know, even by analogy to our actual laughter, that it would only depress us if we were to see it before we were really prepared for it. The real crisis of our being, if we would only reflect on it, is that we are given too much, not too little, that we are made for a joy, were it shown to us in advance, we would reject because we could not imagine it. The structure of the present human world might well be seen as the result of the rejection of a gift which is not due to us. The world is replete with attempts of our own imaginings, disguised as philosophy, to replace what was intended to be our gift, our joy, what was beyond the powers of our own capacities to concoct by themselves.
Philosophy, as I have intimated in my subtitle, suggests that what is best about us is what is “useless.” Let us see if we can imagine something that is indeed useless. We throw away useless things and yet here I am suggesting that the highest things are useless, are things we do not use or use up. To us, at first, it sounds wrenching to argue that what is best in us is useless and this “what is best” is, indeed, philosophy. Philosophy, we know, means that we love and seek wisdom, the order and content of the highest things. Philosophy is not merely a knowledge but a way of life, a commitment to what is true. We have heard man described as homo viator, man the traveler. That is, he never seems to have a home, even though home is what he seeks to have, the place in which he is born and in which he dies. Socrates told us likewise that philosophy is a preparation for death. He chided his young followers in his cell on his last day for weeping. Socrates admonished them because their weeping was a sign that they did not understand what he had been trying to teach them all along. Yet, we cannot but sympathize with these potential philosophers who wept at his death.
What is best in us is “useless.” I want to approach this enigmatic proposition by way of pleasure. To say that what is best in us is “useless” does not mean that what is best in us does not have its own proper pleasure. Samuel Johnson, I think, had it right. On the 15th of April, 1778, Boswell records a remark of Johnson concerning the famous thesis of de Mandeville that it is our vices that cause our wealth. Echoing Aristotle, Johnson remarks that “pleasure itself isn’t a vice. Having a garden, which we all know to be perfectly innocent, is a great pleasure. At the same time, in this state of being there are many pleasures (that are) vices, which however are so immediately agreeable that we can hardly abstain from them. The happiness of Heaven will be, that pleasure and virtue will be perfectly consistent” (II, 221). Heaven is not a place in which pleasures are lacking, but a place in which their true reality is seen in the acts for which they are intended.
Aristotle made the same point in another way. He acknowledged that for every activity there is a proper pleasure so that if a pleasure is wrong, it is not because it is pleasure but because the activity in which it exists as a “bloom” or perfection of the activity is wrong. Then he added that there are many activities that we would “be eager for even if they brought no pleasure, e.g. seeing, remembering, knowledge, having the virtues” (1174a4-5). And Aristotle will say later on that having the virtues is itself necessary for knowing reality as it is, otherwise we end up using our knowledge to pursue ends that are not the highest (1178a16-20). But notice that knowledge is among the things that Aristotle mentioned we would want even if there were no proper pleasure attached to it. The point I want to stress here, however, is that there is a proper pleasure attached to knowledge, a pleasure that makes the activity even more what it is, even more delightful, even more absorbing.
I wish to keep our attention on the idea that pleasure varies according to the act. If we do not experience the highest pleasures, it is quite likely that we will lapse into what are called lower ones, that is, into activities that are disordered and that separate their purpose and the pleasure connected with them. Aristotle is quite remarkably certain that those who experience the highest things are not usually those with great wealth or political power. “For virtue and understanding, the sources of excellent activities, do not depend on holding supreme power,” he wrote. “Further, these powerful people have had no taste of pure and civilized pleasure, and so they resort to bodily pleasures” (1176b19-21). Politicians, those “holding supreme power,” resort to bodily pleasures not because they are busy about political things, but because their souls have no taste for “pure and civilized pleasure.” It is difficult for a politician to have a contemplative life, but without it, he is in danger of undermining even the political life. This idea is also found in The Republic’s Myth of Er. “Self-sufficiency and action do not depend on excess,” Aristotle tells us (1179a3). Aristotle was not one to denigrate the political life. But he was quite aware that it stood in a very precarious moral position. It could not fill our souls by its own pleasures, by the honor due to it. A confusion about the relative importance of the political life, the highest of the practical sciences but not the highest life as such, could well leave empty the soul that lacked the taste for the higher things, that lacked philosophy.
Aristotle frequently speaks of things that are worth doing “for their own sakes.” Not everything can be done “in order to” do something else. Ultimately, there must be something that is just worth doing, something that is at the same time ours and that takes us outside of ourselves. Notice that Aristotle said that the politicians who lacked a “taste for pure and civilized pleasure” not only have no inner resources whereby they might see the limitations of power, but they, lacking this higher pleasure, lapse into what Aristotle calls “bodily pleasures.” They are less than complete. The highest things have the highest pleasures. If we do not know them, we do not know their pleasures. We blind ourselves.
This passage about those in power recalls Plato’s discussion of the tyrant, especially Alcibiades or Callicles, both of whom are pictured as attractive, shrewd, and powerful politicians. The tyrant for Plato and Aristotle charmed the people. The tyrant knew citizens’ souls and feared only those with inner virtue. The tyrant paid close attention to the people’s wants, whatever they wanted. What is also characteristic of both Alcibiades and Callicles, of tyrants in general, is that they have no inner soul, no order of virtue. Callicles said that he studied philosophy in college but gave it up as dangerous because it got in his way in politics. Machiavelli was later to say substantially the same things. Alcibiades ends up betraying Athens and seeks, unsuccessfully, to subvert Socrates, the philosopher, himself. He senses that this latter is even a worse betrayal than his betrayal of his polity. Both Alcibiades and Callicles admit that they come first, that they take their norms not from inner principles of what is, but from what the people want. But this very shifting criterion of the wants of a people with souls of disordered liberty, meant that the tyrant knew how to use the people for his own ends. These ends were never contemplative or self-sufficient, never the kind of pure and civilized pleasure that indicates a soul aware of the attraction of the highest things.
To make this point in another way, let me recount the first letter in the Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, a book which a friend kindly gave me for Christmas. The letter is dated May Day, 1948, from Foote to Percy. Foote is talking about writing, learning to write, what is involved. To learn to write, Foote tells Percy, anyone has to be an apprentice for five or more years. He has to write, rewrite, tear up, write again. He adds,
but the most heart-breaking thing about (writing) is (this): the better you get, the harder you will have to work – because your standards will rise with your ability. I mentioned ‘work’ – it is the wrong word: because if you’re serious, the whole creative process is attended with pleasure, in a form which very few people ever know. Putting two words together in a sequence that pleases you, really pleases you, brings a satisfaction which must be kin to what a businessman feels when he manages a sharp transaction – something like that but on a higher plane because the businessman must know that soon he will have spent the dollars he made, but these two words which the writer set together have produced an effect which will never die as long as men can read with understanding.
The human creative process has its own pleasure that resides in the work that almost ceases to be work and passes into contemplation itself, into the “effect which will never die as long as men can read with understanding.”
Aristotle had distinguished between recreation, work, play, and leisure. The purpose of recreation was that we could go back to work. It was a recognition of the limits of our bodily powers. Work meant constructing the world, the houses, ploughing the fields, the world of making that at its highest activities passes over into the fine arts, into painting, music, sculpture. The normal Greek word for business, however necessary, implied a lack of leisure. The word for leisure, skole, the word from which we get our word school, meant the activities of the highest intellectual virtues, to seek the truth, contemplate the beautiful, do the good. Business meant askolia, the lack of leisure. Play or sport, however, Aristotle maintained, was the nearest thing most of us come to contemplation, as it too was something “for its own sake.” Perhaps it was not so serious, yet it could give us a taste of contemplation, of something that absorbed all of our attention, an experience we all need.
The Washington Post, in its columns in preparation for the Superbowl (January 29, 1999), featured a long article on Bill Romanowski, the Denver Broncos’ tough and controversial linebacker. Romanowski, in his eagerness to play, is pictured as a kind of a throwback to a man who liked to play all the time, offense and defense, to play hard, not to count the injuries, “a throwback to the days when football players considered blood stains on their jerseys and a mouth full of cracked teeth to be a badge of honor.” He then added, in a line that I want to reflect on here in the context of doing things for their own sakes, “I’m a guy who plays every play like its his last.... They say if you love what you do, you don’t have to work a day in your life.” This wonderful remark gets close to what we mean by leisure and contemplation, to philosophy, to the best thing in us as precisely useless, to things we enjoy doing for their own sakes, even with blood on our jerseys.
Our real subject is, of course, the contemplative life. We do not have to rule land and sea to lead it; indeed, that might be an impediment. It has its own pleasure, pure and civilized, without which we lapse into other pleasures not so innocent or so riveting. In Mel Lazrus’ cartoon, “Miss Peach,” we are in a kindergarten. We see a very precocious Francine talking with a much slower Arthur. He asks her, “what are you doing?” “Thinking,” she replies. This confuses Arthur, “Thinking?” “Yes,” Francine explains pertly, “I’m getting ideas.” “Ideas are wonderful,” she effuses. “Ideas? What are ideas?” Arthur persists. “You’re kidding. Ideas are, well, ‘thoughts’.” “Thoughts?” Arthur repeats confusedly, as if thoughts are new to him. “Yes, things that come into your mind.” With this explanation, Arthur is pictured with a question mark over his head. He doesn’t get it. “They come into your head,” she explains. “What do they look like?” he wants to know. Francine patiently responds, “Arthur, ideas are intangible. They don’t look like anything in particular.” Arthur still bears the question mark; they make no sense to him. “Ideas! Ideas!! Haven’t you ever had any, Arthur? Wispy things that sort of float in and out of your mind at odd moments?” Francine awaits light in Arthur’s eyes, but Arthur continues uncomprehendingly to stare at her. Finally, in the last scene, to a thoroughly disgusted Francine, Arthur brightly replies, “Oh, yes! I’ve had those! Funny, I’ve always assumed they were Unidentified Flying Objects..!”
Such amusing kindergarten reflections on precisely “thinking” still remind us that “thinking” is indeed what we are about, however successfully we deal with these “intangible,” “wispy” things that come into our heads seemingly in some Cartesian sense ungrounded in reality. And thinking is what sets us apart, not just thinking but thinking about reality, about what is. Our minds are precisely capax omnium, capable of knowing the truth of all things. What fascinates us, what makes us lose track of time and place is precisely the reality that is before us, that reality we are not. Our minds are given to us so that what is not ourselves can become what we are after the manner of our knowing. It is not sufficient that we simply exist. We exist having now within us what is not ourselves, what is the truth. It is all right for us rational beings to exist because in our existing as limited and finite mortals, we have access to all that is not ourselves. This includes in some sense the awareness that reality itself has its own grounding that we did not give it but about which we are curious, about which we want to know the truth.
“Philosophy strives for knowledge of the whole,” Leo Strauss wrote in a famous essay. And in this striving, in this way of life, in this love of wisdom, philosophy becomes absorbing; it possess its own pleasure. We notice nothing of the effort involved in learning. If we love what we do, we do not work in our lives. Philosophy, at its best, brings us to questions we cannot fully answer by philosophy. This is not an argument against philosophy, but, as Cicero said, a praise of it. Philosophy brings us a long way. And if we do not attend to philosophy, we will not know the whole that we seek, even as we seek to know all things, the very purpose of our faculty of intelligence in the first place.
Plato, in his Laws, asked what it is that we should be about when all things are done? How should we spend our lives? What is beyond use and why is it the best thing about us? We should spend our lives, he said, “singing, sacrificing, and dancing” (803e). We are not the measure but the measured. Therefore, we can have joy, can rejoice in what is. Of the highest things, we can “do” nothing further but celebrate them. In hearing this advice, Megillus inquires whether it is not denigrating human things, important things, useful things? “Oh,” the Stranger replied, “Don’t be amazed, Megillus, but forgive me! For I was looking away toward the god and speaking under the influence of that experience, when I said what I did just now. So let our race be something that is not lowly then, if that is what you cherish, but worthy of a certain seriousness” (804b). Though we are worthy of a “certain seriousness,” only God is serious, worthy of all attention. The effect of this recognition of our real status in the universe is exhilarating, freeing us to respond to what we are not.
The highest things are useless. They are the best things in us.
Let me conclude by recalling the sub-title of what is to me the most remarkable book written in recent years. It is called “the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy.” The book is written by a young English woman by the name of Catherine Pickstock. The title of her book is called After Writing, a very intricate polemic about the intellectual inadequacies of post-modern thought. It is likewise a book on Plato, a book on the value and limits of writing, itself a very Platonic theme. Notice that the title is about the “liturgical’ consummation of precisely “philosophy.” The book deals with the question that bothered Nietzsche, Strauss, and Voegelin, namely, why is it that modern philosophy so often ended up in an ideology that explained the world not through what is, through itself, but through the constructed ideas of man, the philosopher, who insisted on deriving everything from himself, from himself presupposed to nothing, from in short what has come to be called modernity? Then, having seen these ideologies in operation, post-modern philosophy protects itself from them by denying finally that we can know anything at all.
Pickstock’s thesis, if I might be so bold as to state it in my own words, is that philosophy does lead us, especially through Plato, in the right direction, but it needs an ending that philosophy itself cannot give, though it can intimate. The recovery of Plato is essential to our philosophic souls. But notice that she uses the word “consummation”; philosophy itself becomes absorbed in what is beyond itself, in what is already in Plato “useless” because it arouses in us what is more than mere praise. It brings us to what Aristotle himself called “celebration” (1101b30-35).
If I can go back to Nietzsche, to conclude, the history of modern ideology is the history of a false celebration of reality, a reality that only corresponded to what we ourselves could make for ourselves or impose on our kind. But the celebration of the reality beyond philosophy, or better to which philosophy points us, is not something merely left to us. If we are inadequate to form it solely by ourselves, we cannot exclude the possibility that it is given to us. Philosophy, at its best, leads us to certain questions that it does not by itself answer, but they are genuine questions rooted in the authenticity of philosophy itself.
Aristotle, to take one example, in his treatise on friendship, remarked that it seemed odd that God was lonely, that He lacked what is the highest perfection of human life. The liturgical consummation of philosophy would follow from the revelational possibility that God is not alone, that within the divinity there is a completion that includes otherness. The human race or the cosmos itself need not exist in order to alleviate the loneliness of God. And if this is so, we can “do” nothing for God; that is, we are ourselves unnecessary, and ultimately “useless,” and this is the best thing about us because we can pursue the highest things, the knowledge of the whole, spending our lives “singing, sacrificing, and dancing.” Philosophy, our pursuit of truth, is relieved of the burden of our attempting to make the world after our own images. Joy is a by-product because we are not so serious, but we exist because what is indeed serious is given to us who are capaces omnium. Joylessness is not our destiny. Joy is the receiving of what we love, even in the highest things. The highest things absorb us, and this is our pleasure; this is why we are at all.
“How do we know that we are philosophers?” we might finally ask. I will point to a famous reflection of Cicero, which gives us, I think, the ultimate sign: “Publius Cornelius Scipio, the first of that family to be called Africanus, used to remark that he was never less idle than when he had nothing to do, and never less lonely than when he was by himself” (On Duties, I). Cicero does not deny that philosophy leads us also to friends and to truth, but he does imply that friends and truth will never be secure if we do not ourselves possess an interior, contemplative life, a life devoted to philosophy.
WHAT DO PHILOSOPHERS KNOW?
“Reason must realize that human knowledge is a journey which allows no rest....”
– John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, #18.
“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness, they are loved for themselves; and above all others is the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all of the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”
– Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I, Chapter 1, 980a23-28.
“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”
– Pascal, (✝1662), Pensées, #863.
What do philosophers do? In general, they try to reduce the disparate facts and principles found or observed in any walk of life or discipline to order. They see that contradictory principles cannot both be true. This mention of contradiction implies a reflective “examination” of the mind on itself about itself. We realize that we cannot “prove” the principle of contradiction, namely, that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. It is where we begin if we are to begin at all. We cannot prove it from something “clearer,” for nothing is more evident than the principle itself. We must assume the validity of the principle itself when we try to reject it. We cannot reject it without affirming it. The first exercise of intellectual freedom is the conscious effort to deny the principle of contradiction to realize actively in our own intellects that it cannot be denied.
If it were true that contradictories could both be true in all circumstances, then anything can be true, including exact opposites. Likewise, the same things that are true would also, on the same grounds, be false. Thus, the principle of contradiction holds in its very denial or else the denial could not be valid. The mind presupposes this principle that comes into operative existence the moment we try to affirm or deny anything once we know that something other than our mind exists. Indeed, we first know our own minds when we affirm or deny something that is not our mind. Our only alternative to examining or employing this principle, as Aristotle maintained, is to keep silence, to allow nothing to be examined or even spoken. But this “silence” would remove any rational being from any intercourse with other rational beings at any level. He would reduce himself to a vegetative state. We should, as Aristotle said in his Rhetoric be more read to defend ourselves with our words than with our arms.
Robert Sokolowski, in a seminal essay in The Review of Metaphysics, observed that what philosophers do is “make distinctions.” That is to say, they try to understand, to separate one thing from another, to relate things, to see what can and cannot go together. This very effort to make such distinctions is itself a delight, a fascination with things and our relation to them. Plato remarked in The Republic that the philosopher’s function is to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. Notice that the philosopher affirms and denies, as if we need to make such a statement one way or another about the things that are. Indeed, making such statements is principally what the mind is for, its contemplative activity. This is what we mean by truth, the truth of things, which we desire to have even when we do not have it, even when we say it is “impossible,” for that too, ironically, would be a “truth.” We want to know whether what we affirm or deny in our minds does or does not conform with the way things are outside the mind.
Plato also tells us of the famous case of the Thracian maidens, who exemplify the ordinary person’s view of the philosopher. Evidently, two famous philosophers were soberly walking down the road one day in Athens, speaking to each other of the things above, when one of them, not noticing a rather large pothole in the road, ignominiously fell in it. On witnessing this, to them, absurd, scene, these charming, normal young ladies are said to have “giggled.” And this giggle has become immortal, for it suggests that philosophers, for all their hauteur, are highly impractical beings who can barely tie their shoe strings or notice holes in the road. What, after all, is the “use” of such impractical types that we have to lead around holes in the road so that they do not fall in them?
What do philosophers “do?” At bottom, they do nothing “useful.” What they do is precisely, as Aristotle implied, “useless.” However, nothing pejorative is intended when we observe the uselessness of the philosopher, provided we also understand that philosophers have been known to call truth “folly,” as we read in St. Paul. Nothing prevents a philosopher from being a corrupt man whose intellectual system is not designed to know the truth but rather to protect his actions and deeds from any examination against the norms or standards of what is. Man, as Aristotle said, can be worse than the beasts, which comment, I have always thought, is a slander on the poor animals. In principle, those who are called to the highest of vocations are the same ones who can fall to the lowest. The examples of Lucifer in Scripture and of the tyrant in the classic authors are cases in point. Lucifer was the brightest of the angels. We can find little difference of raw talent between the philosopher-king and the worst tyrant, except in what each chooses, in what each calls his end, his “truth.” Once the end, good or bad, is chosen, all prudence is designed to achieve it.
Pascal held that we must love the truth even to “know” it. Aristotle began his most rigorous book almost lightheartedly by telling us to delight in the things we see about us so that we could “make distinctions,” which, if we think about it, we love to do. We love to know how things are alike and how they are different, and thus what they are, that they are. And philosophers can be lonely people. They can find themselves, as Daniel Mahoney pointed in is new book on Solzhenitsyn, in gulags with everything taken away from them and asked, in order to be “free,” to affirm only one thing, namely, “a lie.” Plato said the same thing. He told us that the worst thing we could have is a “lie” in our souls about the most important things. But surely he knew that a culture could also be filled with folks with such lies in their souls, not wanting to know and hence not choosing to follow the highest things.
What does a philosopher “know”? John Paul II, following a famous phrase in St. Augustine about our “restless hearts,” told us that we are on a journey in the pursuit of knowledge that “allows us no rest.” I love that phrase -- “a journey that allows us no rest.” The Pope is, of course, right. Some would have this comment mean that there is no “rest” ever. But this alternative, were it true, would just mean, as Aristotle also said, that we were the one being in the universe who is, as such, “in vain,” to no purpose. Both reason and revelation exist in order that we know that our being, and with it the being of the cosmos, does not exist “in vain.”
Still, what do philosophers know? Above all, they are supposed to “know themselves.” However, to know oneself, we quickly realize, we must first know something that is not ourselves. To know ourselves, we must actually be knowing something not ourselves so that we are engaged in an act of knowing, an act the structure of which we do not give to ourselves but find it already there along with our being in which it exists. We can, on knowing something not ourselves, then reflect back on ourselves. We see that “what” is knowing what is not ourselves is indeed something we identify with the who and what we are.
But is it not rather dull, even vain, to know ourselves? Of course, we soon discover that we are unlike any other being in the universe. We ought to know this uniqueness about ourselves, as it corresponds to the truth of our being. The peculiar thing about our knowing is that we begin with an empty slate, as Aristotle put it. If we know nothing or everything, we have the same mind, the same capacity to know. In one case it is, as it were, filled, in the other case, it is empty. It is not a perfection of the mind to know nothing. And since we are not gods, since we are finite, we know after our own manner of knowing, though we really do know some things.
Yet, even when we know and know that we know something, we remain “restless.” Is this a bad thing? It is a bad thing only if we do not first delight in what is, in what is not ourselves that is out there, as it were, for us to know. Our minds are in fact capax omnium, capable of knowing all things. The fact that we do not yet know all things is merely the other side of the journey on which we are engaged by our very living and, indeed, dying. Some, I know, despair because they do not yet know everything. But this not-yet-knowing is not a cause of despair. Again the regulating principle is that of Aristotle, of delighting not merely in seeing, but also in knowing, knowing anything, but especially in knowing the order of things. And to know the order of things, we must make distinctions, to say that this is, but this is not that.
What do philosophers know? One of the things they know, perhaps the most important thing they know, is that they have questions that are not answered, even when some questions are answered. They assume that their answers will also come from philosophy, but this is an assumption, though not an entirely wrong one. Yet, if they do not have the questions of our being properly formulated, they will not know whether answers are proposed to their questions as asked. Nothing requires that answers be given to people who ask no questions, or who ask improperly formulated questions.
Should we worry that philosophers do not see answers? Should we worry that some philosophers are corrupt as philosophers, that is, that they refuse to go in one or another direction because they see, at least darkly, where reality might lead them but they do not want to go there, do not want to change their lives? Indeed, we should worry about these things. Philosophers know that they must ask “why there is something, not nothing?” “Why is this thing not that thing?” They know that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect. They know they have intellectual tools. They know that their philosophical knowledge, as such, does not change the world, but it does change them. They are more when they know that what is, is, and what is not, is not.
What do philosophers know? This is my last comment. Philosophers know the delight of knowing what is not themselves. This is what they speak to their friends about, what they want to do above all. Philosophy, when done well, when done rightly, leaves us in a state of expectancy, of wanting no rest, not because we are tired, but because there is so much yet to see, yes so much to see again and again. We did not make reality; it is given to us. This too is a truth of philosophy.
In the end, the “private” lives and the public events both cause us to wonder. Wondering about such common events, the things that need order, as Aristotle implied, is still the beginning of philosophy. But the end of philosophy is the knowing, the delight in affirming of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is now.
Published in Perspectives on Political Science, 29 (Fall, 2000), 219-24.
ON THE PARADOXICAL PLACE OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
IN THE STRUCTURE OF REALITY
“Every human being and every society is what it is by virtue of the highest to which it looks up. The city, if it is healthy, looks up, not to the laws which it can unmake as it made them, but to the unwritten laws, the divine law, the gods of the city. The city must transcend itself.”
“I will argue that genuine subjectivity is to be attained through the redemptive return of doxological dispossession, thus ensuring that the subject is neither autonomously self-present, nor passively controlled from without (the pendulum of ‘choice’ available to the citizen of our immanentist city).
“For these sophists desire that demonstrative arguments should be given for all things; for it is obvious that they wanted to take some starting point that would be for them a kind of rule whereby they could distinguish between those who are healthy and those who are ill, and between those who are awake and those who are asleep.... Still, they are not deceived in their own minds so that they believe the judgments of one who is asleep and the judgment of one who is awake to be equally true. And this is clear from their acts....”
– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Bk. IV, C. 15, #709.
Philosophic discussions sometimes lend themselves to non-philosophic beginnings. It seems proper to start with a tract that ended in the last days of the XXth Century. The scene at the theater is the “Tenth Annual Tiny Tots’ Concert.” Present are Marcie, Peppermint Patty, Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally, and a diminutive girl with long hair, wearing a head-band. Peppermint Patty tells us right off that she “hates” such “Tiny Tot Concerts.” Sally in turn complains, “Every time we come to one of these concerts, they play ‘Peter and the Wolf.’” In the next scene she continues, ‘They must think we don’t understand anything else.” The little girl with the head-band, sitting to Sally’s left, asks her, “Don’t you like ‘Peter and the Wolf’?” Sally replies, “I don’t know ... I’ve never understood it.” We find this account amusing because we understand, without need of further explanation, what it means to say that we do not understand, while at the same time claiming that we do understand.
That is to say, as the passage from St. Thomas that I cited in the beginning affirms, we possess the first principle of being and knowledge without our having formally to elaborate it; namely, a thing cannot be and not be at the same time. We cannot deny the principle without implicitly affirming it. Our acts often make our thoughts clear when we do not admit their clarity even to ourselves. Even when we would be skeptics, we reveal something that is not skeptical. Our very rational power is given to us. As Samuel Johnson put it in a letter to James Boswell, on February 9, 1776, “Providence gives the power, of which reason teaches the use.” Without the implicit truth of the principle of contradiction, we could not know that we reason badly. Without it, we could not be taught reason’s use.
In a conversation at the University of Leyden in Holland, on May 20, 1975, the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was asked by Professor H. Phillipse: “Is philosophy a diversion for you, as it was for Pascal?” To this question, Levinas enigmatically responded, in a phrase to which I shall return later, “if the undivertable can be a diversion, and if a diversion can be undivertable.” Phillipse next inquired, “Is the philosophical attitude – which is in essence a skeptical attitude - not in contradiction with the attitude of faith?” Levinas distinguished the meaning of “skeptical,” a point with which I am beginning these considerations on political philosophy. “‘Skeptical’ only means the fact of examining things,” Levinas affirmed,
the fact of posing questions. I do not at all think that a question – or, at least, the original questioning – is only a deficiency of answers. Functional and even scientific questions – and many philosophic ones – await only answers. Questioning qua original attitude is a relation to that to which no response can contain, to the “uncontainable”; it becomes responsibility. Every response contains a “beside the point” and appeals to an un-said (dé-dit).
The fact is, there are questions to which there are answers, even when we realize that every answer arises out of a reality that is “uncontainable” by our own minds. This questioning is not skepticism but a manifestation of what Socrates called intellectual “eros,” an awareness and pursuit of the revelatory nature of what is.
“Examining things” is what we do when we philosophize. We would not bother to do this examining if we thought a priori that we could know nothing of what we examine. The burden of knowing what political philosophy might be involves the effort to distinguish and identify what it is not. This may be a skeptical enterprise, if you will, but it has the prime purpose of knowing about things as such. It seeks to identify where and how political things fit into the order of reality. “Philosophy is the intellectual activity that works with distinctions,” Robert Sokolowski has written.
Philosophy explains by distinguishing. This does not mean that philosophy just asserts distinctions and lets it go at that; rather, it works with distinctions, it brings them out and dwells on them, dwells with them, showing how and why the things it has distinguished must be distinguished from one another.... The activity of making distinctions always has something contemplative about it. Whenever we make a distinction, we become somewhat disconnected from whatever practical or rhetorical activity we may be engaged in.
That is to say, the effort to distinguish things at one level simply means that we want to know what they are independently of our wanting to know what to do with them or make of them. In this sense, there is an unavoidable philosophical aspect to our reflecting on political things, even though politics is what Aristotle called a “practical” science, one directly ordered to doing, to acting, not making or contemplating.
The “place” of any philosophy is, properly speaking, within the human mind while it actively thinks about what is, about what is not the human mind itself or anything in it. Our “consciousness” depends initially on the fact that we have a mind that comes to be in act, that is, that comes to know something. Thus, consciousness also depends on what is other than mind. What is not mind is not itself necessarily conscious even though it has some intelligibility to it, something not of its own making. The human mind, that power that is capax omnium, only knows itself indirectly, in knowing what is not itself. In this sense, it is not a divine mind that knows all in knowing itself. It remains a limited, finite mind, yet, still mind, still open to all things, to what is. Therefore, it is capable of receiving what it is not.
This capacity of knowing all things is why finite beings can be content not to be themselves gods. To talk of philosophy, moreover, is to talk of the knowledge of the whole, to seek this whole. To talk of precisely “political” philosophy, on the other hand, is to talk of certain conditions that allow us to continue this enterprise of thinking, of seeking to know, to love the whole. Political philosophy addresses first the politician to convince him to let philosophy itself be. Political philosophy in this sense always remains under the shadow of Socrates and Christ, both non-writers of books, both killed by the best states of their time. But it also wants to know the status and intelligibility of precisely political things, the things we call political.
Among the things that are, we find human cities. Indeed, it is worthy of note in the beginning that the description of the whole, as in Plato, the Stoics, and Augustine, is after the manner of a “city” – “The Republic,” the “Cosmopolis,” the “City of God.” Human cities as such are not, properly speaking, “things,” though there are things, primarily human things, within them. Existing human beings are the substantial realities that ground the ontological status of cities. As we see in ruins everywhere, minus human beings, minus cities. Human cities, while not totally or metaphysically “unreal,” do not fall into the category of substance, however un-Hegelian but downright Aristotelian this observation might sound. Human cities do not exist without human beings, without human beings acting for some purpose, some end. Cities fall in the category of “ad aliud,” of “relation.” They indicate the order of actions existing among rational beings acting practically to achieve their chosen ends, ends themselves revealed again and again by their chosen goals, as Aristotle described it so well in the first book of his Ethics.
And human beings themselves do not exist of their own making. Political science does not make man to be man but taking him from nature as already man, causes him to be good man – to summarize the words of Aristotle (1100a30-32; 1102a8-10; 1258a21-23). What it is to be man is not itself an idea concocted from nothing or originally formulated by man. Rather it is something learned by reflecting on some already present order of being and action within him, already within a world, a cosmos. We find ourselves to be, and to be human beings, not turtles or trees or torrents of rain. Human beings want to know the truth of things, including the truth of what their cities are, together with the truth about their own status in reality.
“The experiences of reason and spirit agree on the point that man experiences himself as a being who does not exist from himself,” Eric Voegelin wrote in his second German lecture on “The Development of Diagnostic Tools.”
He exists in an already given world. The world itself exists by reason of a mystery, and the name for the mystery, for the cause of this being of the world, of which man is a component, is referred to as “God.” So dependence of existence (Dasein) on the divine causation of existence (Existenz) has remained the basic question of philosophy up until today. This was formulated by Leibniz in the classic proposition that metaphysics has to deal with two questions: Why is there something, why not nothing? And one second question, Why is this something as it is? These why questions place at the beginning of all reflections on man, what we can call, with classical philosophical expression, the etiological problem of the existence of man and the world.
Voegelin insists that at our own beginning, we cannot but know that what we are is not caused by any efficacious action or thought of our own. We can, perhaps, deny that we have this wonderment about ourselves in our fragile being, but this denial again puts us back at the skeptical question. We affirm something in our very denying of it. Moreover, Voegelin’s second question, “Why is this something as it is?” – the question of form – involves in the case of man the Aristotelian affirmation that man is by nature a political animal, a city-living being, again not something of his own making..
Years ago in Spokane, I heard a lecture of the great historian of philosophy, Etienne Gilson. His lecture concerned itself with the starting point of philosophizing. This starting point, I recall him vigorously affirming, was the certainty of the evident propositions that 1) “there are things,” and 2) “I know them.” To doubt this starting point makes it impossible ever to begin. He reminded us that there is nothing clearer than this experience and affirmation. Even the denial of things or knowing them involves things and knowing. Even if we be Descartes himself, we cannot find something clearer from which we might “prove” that there are things or that we know them. Starting points are not known by prior “proofs,” as Aristotle reminded us in the sixth book of his Ethics. The habit of first principles means that some things are known of themselves, per se nota, self-evident truths, as they came to be called. They are known in the first act of knowing anything else, hence their firstness. The attempt to prove all proof is an infinite regression that results in knowing nothing.
Gilson at a certain point in his lecture took a glass of water that was on the podium. He held it in front of us. We wondered what he was about. He placed the glass of water in his hand and showed it to us. “If I said that what I have in my hand was a block of wood,” he provocatively told us, “you would all sit up and pay attention. You would be curious. But if I said that it is a glass of water, you would say, ‘so what.’” Gilson let this account sink in a bit. No one protested that the glass of water was really a block of wood. The dream world and the real world were assumed to be different. Then he added, with some rhetorical force, “but the truth is that it is a glass of water and not a block of wood. True things may be very common things that we know all along. It is falsity that often strikes us, makes us pay attention.” I have never quite forgotten that glass of water that was not a block of wood, that “there are things and I know them.”
A friend of mine, to continue this theme, Professor Thomas Martin, was asked to give the eulogy in Arizona for his friend and mentor, the late Professor Richard Arlen Wood, who had been for many years a famous professor of philosophy at Northern Arizona University. Wood had a great influence on Martin and generations of students at Northern Arizona. Martin, in his eulogy, recalled the first time he encountered Wood in a class at Flagstaff. Martin, through his recollection of Wood, makes Gilson’s point in another way.
“I stood there remembering the first time I had met Dick Wood at NAU in 1973 when he walked into ‘Philosophy 353: Man and Reality...,’” Martin recalled.
Twenty-five of us were seated in the classroom when in walked this man with his hair slicked back, wearing brown jeans, a western shirt, and cowboy boots. He stopped and stood eyeing the class while twitching the corner of his mouth, straightening out his mustache with his forefinger and thumb. He frowned and looked about as though he were searching for something to say. He took a puff on his half-smoked cigar and began to read the roll.
After reading a few names, he suddenly stopped and asked a student sitting in the front row, “Do you have a mind?” “Yes,” the student brightly responded. “Well, you will like this course and reading Descartes’ Meditations because he also had a mind about which he is going to tell us. Do you have anything in your mind?”
“I have a lots of things in my mind,” the student replied. “That’s nice, but could you give me an example of one thing you have in your mind?” Wood asked. “Well, currently I have you, Professor Wood, in my mind.” “I am in your mind?” Wood wondered. “Well, it’s not really you that is in my mind, but an image of you which has come through my eyes to my mind,” the student explained.
“An image of me has come through your eyes and is in your mind?” “Exactly,” the student affirmed. “So do you see me or do you see an image of me?” “I see an image of you,” the student acknowledged. “Have you ever seen me?” Wood wanted to know. “No, I have only seen an image of you,” the student replied. “Then how do you know that this is me if you have only seen an image of me?” “I don’t,” the student admitted. “Then to whom are you speaking?” Wood asked. No response.
This amusing classroom scene, of course, illustrates what we mean by the crisis of modernity, the inability to get outside of ourselves to a reality that we did not create or know before we encountered something that is, but which something is the cause of our knowledge because it is.
Modern political philosophy is, at bottom, the product of this inability to get outside of ourselves so that what we really know is only ourselves with no possible check on ourselves by what is not ourselves. When Machiavelli, in his famous Chapter XV of The Prince, made it impossible, as he thought, for men to pass from what they “do” do to what they “ought” to do, or vice versa, he left the will of the Prince and the wills in the Republic free to create any form of man they wished. By destroying Plato, nothing stood in their way. The Prince became an artist, not a politician, or better he became an artist whose subject matter, whose raw materials, were human beings themselves devoid of any intrinsic form. No check on the Prince’s actions was to come from the “form” of what man is, the form by which he knows that he himself did not make himself. What ought to be is what exists, as Hegel is later to postulate the logical conclusion of this position for us.
In a famous essay, Leo Strauss asked the question, “What Is Political Philosophy?” Clearly, intellectual clarity asks us to distinguish political science and political philosophy. Likewise, we need to be aware of the distinction of reason and revelation, of philosophy and science. Hence, if we ask about the “paradoxical” place of political philosophy in precisely the “structure” of reality, we imply both that there are political things, including the question of the best regime, and human practical reason out of which political things initially flow. We also affirm that reality is not a “chaos,” but a “structure,” that is, an “order.” We can make sense of political things.
I use the word “paradoxical” about the place of political philosophy in the structure of reality because the subject matter of political reflection, namely, human actions insofar as they are blameworthy or praiseworthy, do not reach reality apart from human thinking and choosing. In other words, the fact that man is “by nature” a political animal, one whose full being is not available to him without the city, means that, unlike other beings in their flourishing, human beings must actually “act” for political things to exist and thus for themselves fully to exist. Likewise, he must actually “think” if he is going to understand where these actions are to be located in the order of things.
The intellectual virtue of the moral virtues is precisely “prudence,” the virtue that supplies the form or content to the will so that we can know what the act we put in existence really is. The wide variety of ethical and political things, of which Aristotle speaks, is due to the fact that their subject matter is variable both among good alternatives and evil ones. The potential variability of human choice and understanding in each individual prudential act means that it could have been “otherwise.” This “otherwiseness,” as it were, must be included within the meaning of the act or else it cannot have its note of praise or blame that indicates what it is in the order of things. This is why the so-called “social sciences” cannot “know” their subject matter after the manner of those sciences whose subject matter is by nature invariable. Modern social sciences lack this sense of altereity. Hence their method is “reductionist,” that is, it presupposes that reality must be as its method demands. Classical political science does not assume this demand that reality and a mathematical method of knowing it correspond because political science cannot expect more certitude than its subject matter allows..
Aristotle often uses the analogy of the doctor and the politician to shed light on political things. This distinction goes back to the difference between art and prudence. Political things are “recta ratio agibilium,” whereas artistic things are “recta ratio factibilium.” What is the point of this distinction for our purposes here? The doctor knows that human health is a normal reality that occurs if nothing goes wrong. What it is to be humanly healthy is not something the doctor “makes.” He presupposes this given healthfulness as his first principle of action. His task is not to ask, what is essentially the philosopher’s practical question, “what do I do when I am healthy?” but rather “how do I become healthy when I am sick?” The doctor, as Plato warned us, is a dangerous man to us if he is our enemy, since he knows best how to inflict damage on us. He can use his knowledge qua man for good or ill, but not qua doctor where he can only use it for our good, the end of the art.. Once we are healthy, the doctor’s task is finished. He does not tell us how to live. Good doctors can be unhappy men; indeed, they can be evil men.
Aristotle tells us to examine the typical “motion” of all things – the movement of the stars, of the plants, of the animals. He also tells us to examine our own “motions.” The ethics, economics, politics, poetics, and rhetoric are designed to clarify one or another aspect of human “motion.” Certain things are in the universe because human beings are in the universe. Political philosophy exists because of this peculiar human “motion” by which human beings inter-act to achieve a common good in which the human being can flourish. Political science is called an “architectonic” science, that is, it is a directive knowledge with a focus on action. We can step back from this active knowledge to analyze in general what men do or do not do in their personal, familial, or political actions. The organization of this knowledge into intelligible form results in The Ethics and The Politics.
Political philosophy appears when it is necessary to justify the non-political being of man before the politician. The same man is politician and metaphysician. Essentially, political philosophy exists to explain that there are things that transcend man, that the highest things, not merely political things, are worth spending time on. In this sense, political philosophy points to metaphysics and revelation, to the things that are brought up by, but not answered by political life. Without this more contemplative thought, man cannot be what he is. This is the meaning of that famous passage in the sixth book of The Ethics of Aristotle where he writes:
Wisdom must be intuitive reason combined with scientific knowledge – scientific knowledge of the highest objects which has received as it were its proper completion. Of the highest objects, we say, for it would be strange to think that the art of politics, or practical wisdom, is the best knowledge, since man is not the highest being in the world.... It is evident also that philosophic wisdom and the art of politics cannot be the same; for if the state of mind concerned with a man’s own interests is to be called philosophic wisdom, there will be many philosophical wisdoms... (1141a18-30).
This less than highest status of politics too is the reason why Aristotle tells us not to listen to those who tell us only to look to and work for “human” things even though we be humans (1177b30-78a4). The very condition of our humanness points to what is not “human” but which is “mind.” Mind is related to mind. Man remains a rational being for whom all his non-rational powers and capacities are related to his highest faculty.
The passage in classical philosophy that is most central to political philosophy as such is found in Plato’s Gorgias, the famous passage in which Callicles, the intelligent, smooth, handsome politician, the man whose god is the demos itself, ceases to answer Socrates’ questions (505c). It is at this point, shades of The Apology itself, that we know that Socrates is dead. As a philosopher, his hold on life is only guaranteed by his ability to speak with the politician who always retains the power to kill him. Political philosophy is not merely the philosophical consideration of political things but the effort to convince the politician to allow the philosopher to continue in the city with his (the philosopher’s) own task. The philosopher’s task in turn is to lead the politician to at least an awareness of what is not simply politics, itself deprived of any criterion but itself.
Leo Stauss put the issue well in his essay “On Classical Political Philosophy.” The precarious status of philosophy in the city is contingent on rendering the politician, who ordinarily has no time or inclination for such things, benevolent to the higher things.
The adjective “political” in the expression “political philosophy” designates not so much a subject matter as a manner of treatment; from this point of view, I say, “political philosophy” means primarily not the philosophic treatment of politics, but the political, or popular, treatment of philosophy, or the political introduction to philosophy – the attempt to lead the qualified citizens, or rather their qualified sons, from the political life to the philosophic life.
In both Plato and Aristotle, the bridge that allows the politician to open himself to things he does not fully understand is largely provided by music and poetry, both of which, as we know from the same sources, can equally corrupt the soul if they themselves are disordered. Plato recognized that the only way he could “defeat” Homer and the corrupting nature of poetry would be for himself to provide philosophy with its own poetic attraction and enchantment. This Platonic poetic counterpart to Homer, designed to counteract his charm with an even greater charm, is called, precisely, The Republic.
“There is aesthetic creation because there is creation,” George Steiner wrote in his Real Presences, a title with obvious philosophical and theological overtones.
There is formal construction because we have been made form. Today, mathematical models proclaim access to the origins of the present universe. Molecular biology may have in reach an unraveling of the thread whose beginning is that of life. Nothing in these prodigious conjectures disarms, let alone elucidates, the fact that the world is when it might not have been, the fact that we are in it when we might, when we could not have been. The core of our human identity is nothing more or less than the fitful apprehension of the radically inexplicable presence, facticity and perceptible substantiality of the created. It is; we are. This is the rudimentary grammar of the unfathomable.
Steiner’s observations follow from Voegelin’s two questions, “Why is there something and not nothing?” “Why is this thing as it is?” Political philosophy is located at the conjunction of every day politics and the wonderment about the highest things. Reality would not be complete without it if by reality we mean not merely what is but the accurate understanding of what is. Both of these, the reality and the understanding, seem necessary in a world that includes intelligence as well as being, which includes the intelligence of being.
Leo Strauss states bluntly that “‘scientific political science’ is in fact incompatible with political philosophy.” Strauss implies here that the students of “scientific political science” do not engage in the classic enterprise of political philosophy so that there is a unacknowledged lacuna in the proper understanding of human things. In attending to the fact that the subject matter of politics is human actions insofar as they are good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy, political philosophy can avoid that “scientific” neutrality that methodologically leaves out the essential nature of these acts. To be “value-free” means literally not to understand what is to be investigated, what is to be known. Modern social science in this sense means that reality continues but it has no proper intelligence to illuminate it. This is why Strauss thinks that political philosophy which does look to this reality as known by practical science and action is incompatible with modern social science.
“The social scientist is a student of human societies, of societies of humans. If he wishes to be loyal to his task, he must never forget that he is dealing with human things, with human beings,” Strauss explains in his essay, “Social Science and Humanism.”
He must reflect on the human as human. And he must pay due attention to the fact that he himself is a human being and that social science is always a kind of self-knowledge. Social science, being the pursuit of human knowledge of human things, includes as its foundation the human knowledge of what constitutes humanity, or rather, of what makes man complete or whole, so that he is truly human. Aristotle calls his equivalent of what now would be called social science the liberal inquiry regarding the human things, and his Ethics is the first, the fundamental, and the directive part of that inquiry.
“The liberal inquiry regarding human things” recognizes that the “social sciences,” in the Aristotelian sense, are a kind of “self-knowledge.” That is, they realize that their subject matter has passed through and reflects on “the human as human.” This also means that it knows that there are things that are not “human” both below and above man; it is aware of the beasts and the gods as well as men. The place of political philosophy in the structure of reality is at the point where the sub-human, the human, and the transcendent meet, but meet not as hostile combatants but as members of an ordered whole, a whole that includes beings who can freely reject what they are.
In the beginning of these considerations on the place of political philosophy in the structure of reality, I cited, in addition to the passage from Aquinas on skepticism, a passage from Leo Strauss in which he pointed out that of its very nature, the city looks not to laws that it can unmake but to those it cannot, because man did not make himself to be man. The city must transcend itself, or perhaps better, the substantial beings among whom the city is a relation have ends that go through and beyond the political. In a further passage, with which I shall conclude, I cited Catherine Pickstock, in a remarkable book pointing to, as she puts it in her sub-title, the “liturgical consummation of philosophy.” Pickstock intimates that human consciousness cannot be guaranteed by ideological constructs or by “autonomous self-presence,” the only alternatives available in an “immanentist” world, as she puts it. It can only grounded by a “redemptive” return of “doxological dispossession,” caused by a proper human response to the transcendent, a response that implies that man does not “make” his own salvation..
Earlier, I had cited the response of Levinas to the question of whether the absolute could be a “diversion,” of whether, following Pascal, and indeed Plato and Aristotle, the relation of man to transcendence was one of “serious play,” as Plato put it in The Laws. Doxological dispossession means that human completion is not a response to itself or to what it has itself made – to recall Voegelin’s questions about our awareness that we do not create ourselves to be or to be what we are. Doxology, praise, causes us to let go of the illusion that we are the end of our own actions in any absolute sense. All our actions, including our political ones, while remaining what they are, point beyond themselves. If we do not allow for this pointing, we do not understand what we are or the nature of that “good,” as Plato called it, that lies at the origin of things.
Political philosophy takes us back to the proper being of cities in relation to man and to his own personal destiny. Cities are not things that will be saved. Any empire, be it Roman, Holy Roman, British, Soviet, or whatever, “declines and falls,” to use a famous and still haunting expression. Important as they might be, cities and empires are passing things, even though they be also human things intended to surpass the length of the lives of their individual citizens. The Greek classics, when they explained politics, explained them as an order of human actions by which citizens were praiseworthy or blameworthy, and this not in some just ephemeral sense. It was in and through the city that the citizen transcended the city. As Strauss put it at the end of his explication of Aristotle’s Politics, man transcended the city only by what is highest in him, only by pursuing “true” happiness. Modern political philosophy, with its “immanentist” background, as Pickstock intimated, has presented an alternate to the limited state either in terms of a this-worldly, universal ideology in which all good is seen to be a product of the state or in which the individual stands by himself as the maker of all value and the definer of all things, including himself.
“Doxological dispossession” suggests that what is worthy of man’s highest praise is not the state. It is not even man himself. Since the state is a good, however, it can itself be set-up as apparently worthy of total human commitment. No one, perhaps, has put the alternative better than C. S. Lewis’ famous Screwtape in his advice to his colleagues about how to distract the human being from his major purpose. It seems fitting to close these reflections on the place of political philosophy in the structure of reality by citing, who else? The Devil!
Screwtape advises his fellow devils that human beings must be fostered in a certain delusion – not “diversion,” to recall Levinas. Ordinary human beings have a real presence in the world but also they have a real awareness that they did not cause their own being. Human beings then must be deluded into believing that
the fate of nations is in itself more important than that of individual souls. The overthrow of free peoples and the multiplication of slave states are for us [devils] a means (besides, of course, being fun); but the real end is the destruction of the individuals. For only individuals can be saved or damned, can become sons of the Enemy or food for us. The ultimate value, for us, of any revolution, war, or famine lies in the individual anguish, treachery, hatred, rate, and despair which it may produce.
Political philosophy is itself an effort to place the nations in a proper perspective with respect to their being. The fate of nations, however exciting and capable of being made to seem more important than it is, is not the central focus of political philosophy which points through the city to what transcends it. It points to the beings capable of being saved or damned, to one beings capable of praise, of responding to the glory that man did not make.
Human beings are precisely, in Steiner’s phrase, “real presences.” We do not see their image in our eyes, but we see them. We know to whom we are talking; we know that we did not cause ourselves to be or to be what we are. Do not listen to those, as Aristotle told us, who, being human, tell us to concern ourselves only about human things, about the fate of the nations. Human things, as Plato remarks, do have a certain importance, but compared to the “divine seriousness,” they are diversions. But man remains the political animal even in the highest things. We do have the power to distinguish between being awake and being asleep, as Aquinas put it.
In the end, “doxological dispossession” is the highest form of being awake. It is this awakeness to which the city points. It is the paradoxical place of political philosophy in the structure of being that the being of the city finds itself in its rightful rank, in its rightful category, amid the things that are. The highest life, as Aristotle said, is not the political life, but the contemplative life, the life which, compared to political live, is “divine.” But to the degree that the philosopher does not convince the Callicleses of this world to make a place for these higher considerations, to that very degree will political philosophy fail in its mission both to the city and to that which transcends the city. Political philosophy must be thought into existence in order that what is might be complete in knowing its own word.
MODERNITY: WHAT IS IT?
“Modern thought reaches its culmination ... in the most radical historicism, i.e., in explicitly condemning to oblivion the notion of eternity. For oblivion of eternity, or, in other words, estrangement from man’s deepest desire and therewith from the primary issues, is the price which modern man had to pay, from the very beginning, for attempting to be absolutely sovereign, to become the master and owner of nature, to conquer chance.”
“‘Christian philosophy’ is a label that may be given to what philosophers do when they deliberately relate their professional work to their religious or ecclesiastical commitments.”
We are wont to classify the history of philosophy in the following manner: First, while not entirely forgetting the ancient empires such as Persia, Babylon, Egypt, and distant China and India, we have Homer and the pre-Socratics. These ancients were followed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, not forgetting Thucydides, Sophocles, the historians and the dramatists, even the artists. Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics in both Greek and Roman varieties succeeded the immediately post-Greek classical world. We do not overlook Polybius and Plutarch, nor the Jews, Josephus and Philo. The Romans imitated the Greeks but they had their own priorities. Cicero, in his De Officiis, tells us that “moral philosophy” is the most important branch of philosophy, something quite different from the contemplative priorities of Plato and Aristotle. Tacitus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius tell us much the same thing; we cannot forget Virgil or Horace. They all remain quite worth reading.
The corpus of Greek and Roman thought is what we know as “classical philosophy.” Though ancient traditions of the gods and their dealings with men exist, something we find taken quite seriously in Plato, this classical philosophy is held to be the primary manifestation of what man, especially brilliant man, can know by his “unaided” reason. Classical philosophy characteristically retained a certain openness to a reality that it knew it did not fully comprehend. Socrates knew that he did not know, but he also knew that it was never right to do wrong. Plato made it possible for everyone to re-live the trial and death of the philosopher, Socrates, at the hands of the best existing city, Athens. Aristotle, meanwhile, calmly examined all that was to be known. Philosophy began not with ourselves, but with wonder, with our curiosity about why things are, why things are as they are.
Into these natural or philosophic traditions came the revelational corpus that we know from the Bible. The Bible presents us with a history, an account of a people who are said to be directly presented with an understanding of the divine order, of what God, man, and the world were conceived to be in that continuous narrative account of Israel, of Jesus, and of the Church. Both philosophy and revelation, in their own ways, addressed themselves to the whole, to all of what is. Incorporated into cultural life itself, revelation reflected the ways of life of the Jews and Christians and later, with the Koran, of Islam. At first, the early religious communities tried to live solely within the parameters of their respective revelation, though eventually they found that, if they were going to deal with them, they had to explain themselves to each other as well as to the philosophers and to other citizens around them. Augustine and Aquinas, among many others, are significant for the Christians as thinkers who forged a coherent reconciliation between reason and revelation. Neither denied the validity of one or the other.
The Jews and Islam evidently had more of a difficulty with philosophy than did Christianity, even though Maimonides, Averroes, and Avicenna faced these issues in their own ways. This intellectual obstacle of how revelation was to deal with reason was in part due to the fact that the way of life of the Jew and the Muslim had to do with conformity to a revealed Law. Living well meant living according to the Law, indeed according to the letter of the Law, hence the need for lawyers, not philosophers. The peculiarity of the New Law was that it did not prescribe in detail every action or thought, except to say that believers ought to be good and follow the general admonitions of Christ, who, unlike Socrates, was not usually conceived to be a philosopher. Christ, moreover, as Aquinas points out, recognized that external and political disorders arise originally from disorders of soul, from thought, something that Plato and Aristotle also understood
Moreover, Christ was considered to be true man and true God, one Person, two natures, divine and human, both distinct, both real. That is to say, the very understanding of who and what Christ was found expression not merely in scriptural but also in philosophic terms. In its own way, this effort of clarification was revolutionary because it took seriously the truth of the mind about the gods. The early Councils of the Church and the Patristic Fathers had no scruple, when necessary and made for clarity, in finding philosophic terms for Christian doctrines. The classic example is the use of the word “Trinity” to express the inner life of God, a term not found in Scripture. Implicitly, Christian thinkers recognized that revelation was directed to reason, perhaps to challenge it, perhaps to make it more itself. Conversely, they understood that error had consequences in the real world; it was not merely an amusing foible. This attitude again was a sign that thought, especially thought about God, was a claim on truth and a claim that truth was grounded in what is.
Christian revelation was not merely concerned with external obedience or public order, though it did not neglect these areas – things were to be “rendered” to Caesar; the Emperor was to be “obeyed” – but also it was concerned with the ordering of the soul and heart, with the correct definition of the truth about God, man, and the world. Christian revelation in particular seemed to maintain that right thinking, “orthodoxy,” was not only possible when it came to the divinity but that it was a proper perfection of the human knowing power as such to seek to know what it could of the Divinity. Moreover, right action, “ortho-praxis,” was itself usually dependent on orthodoxy. In short, Christian revelation took reason seriously even while it recognized that human reason was not itself God, though it was proper to call it, by comparison, as Aristotle did, “divine.”
We are accustomed, then, to depict classical philosophy as that knowledge that we can learn by the powers of reason operating solely by themselves. By the reflective openness of our intellect looking back on our own interior operations, themselves incited into act by reality, we can, with some effort, distinguish what belongs to our own powers and what arrives from outside of them, though not necessarily alien to them. The work of the philosopher, however lonely it may be, is to know what the human mind with its own resources can know, having first been stimulated by reality, by what is. In the beginning, the mind is only mind, a tabula rasa, as they say. But it always remains a mind open to all that is, so that its true functioning is to know what is not itself and to know itself only indirectly through knowing what is not itself. This power of knowing is what makes it all right to be a human being, to be oneself not a god but a finite being still open to all the things that return to us in knowledge. Plato says, in the Fifth Book of The Republic, that truth is to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. No one has said it better, though Aquinas’ formulation, that truth is the conformity of mind and reality, is about as good and says essentially the same thing. And Aristotle held that the mind is capax omnium, capable of knowing all things. Such a mind potentially exists in each of us and constitutes the ground of our dignity.
The advantage of studying Plato and Aristotle, in this sense, why no real education is possible without them, is said to consist in demonstrating what the “unaided” human mind can learn by itself. “Aided” human reason comes with the stimulus of revelation, which revelation, nevertheless, is said to be addressed to rational man insofar as he is rational, that is, insofar as he has actively asked questions of himself and of the reality that stands before him, the reality, no less than himself, that he did not himself constitute. Thus, revelation, with its grounding in its own sources, is none the less interested in what man does know by his own powers and encourages him to know it. Revelation does not stand against reason, but rather it is in the line of the unity of the truth of all things, including divine things. Christianity explicitly rejects any “two truth” theory that would allow the truths of reason and the truths of revelation to stand in a contradictory relation to each other. It does not “save” revelation by denying reason. In fact, it is deeply suspicious of any “revelation” that contradicts reason, due consideration to the issue involved. When revelation is said to “contradict” reason, it usually turns out, on closer examination, that something of a more profound reasoning is involved than reason at first sight suspected.
Christianity is, to be sure, concerned with the man who has no professional or articulated philosophy, as it were, with the common man, with his salvation. But it is consciously and explicitly also concerned with man the philosopher. Christianity knows that there are many souls and not so many articulate philosophers. But it also knows that in things of the spirit, numbers are of less importance than quality of ideas or genuineness of insight. Christianity, in a sense, addresses the question of whether philosophy, even if it be a good thing, is enough, whether it is possible to “save” both the philosopher and the non-philosopher without denying the significance of the difference between them. Not everyone needs be a philosopher, even if we need philosophers for the good of our being what we are. It is not wrong to observe that some are more gifted than others; it is wrong to conclude that the less gifted cannot also think and are not destined to the Beatific Vision which is presented to us in initially intellectual terms. It is also wrong not to be aware that there are philosophers who are not worthy of the name of philosophy. Philosophical errors are possible and are dangerous.
This particular interest in philosophy seems to be what John Paul II was getting at in Fides et Ratio, in which he chided the Christian theologians and thinkers of recent decades for neglecting philosophy. He likewise questioned contemporary philosophers about the poor quality of their thinking, about their inability to get out of their own minds, as it were. Christianity in general was not hostile to what the philosophers could know, even though Tertullian asked, in a famous question, one echoed by Leo Strauss, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Tertullian implied in fact that Athens was dangerous to Jerusalem, a position that turned out, in retrospect, to be something more characteristic of Jerusalem and Mecca than of Rome, though there were Jewish and Islamic philosophers who struggled with the challenge of the classic philosophers to their own revelation.
Likewise, we could find Christian thinkers who embraced philosophic systems, both ancient and modern, that, by their internal principles, could not manage to reconcile the given truths found in revelation – the Trinity, the Incarnation – with their own peculiar philosophic suppositions about reality. Cartesian and Kantian systems in general make the connection of reason and revelation mediated through the events of actual history to be most doubtful. This latter inability to connect mind and reality has ever been in Christian philosophic tradition a sign that something was aberrant with the philosophic system, not with philosophy as such, but with a peculiar system. Not all philosophic systems are equally true even if they claim to be genuinely philosophical. In this sense, revelation in its proper articulation is considered to serve as a guide for genuine philosophy even in the classical or natural order. This is why St. Thomas found Aristotle so compatible, not because he was Aristotle, but because of the truth of what he said. That the world is coherent is not only a doctrine presupposed by faith, but it is also the assumption of any philosophical quest.
What is called “medieval philosophy” is a philosophy that is open to more than bare philosophy, if I can put it that way, to more than can be known to reason by itself. This position does not imply that there is anything wrong with philosophy provided it remains what it is, an openness to everything that is. Philosophy does not get itself into trouble if it admits that it does not know something. But it gets into enormous difficulty when it claims that the wholeness of reality is itself co-terminus with what it actually knows by its own methods. In other words, if it “reduces” the content of reality from what is to what it can know only by means of human reasoning, then reason itself is limited to certain humanly organized methods. No freshness of being can intrude on a mind unable to get outside of itself.
In a famous quip, Chesterton once remarked that, in some strange way, men who set out to be natural or purely philosophic somehow invariably end up being unnatural and un-philosophic. They come to deny that there is anything unnatural or un-philosophic. It is almost as if, from the beginning, men were not simply in a natural order, which is indeed the case. As St. Thomas says, in a memorable phrase, homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est (De Virtutibus Cardinalibus, 1). If this orientation to an end higher than is open to human nature by itself be so, as revelation indicates it is so, it would mean that every effort to limit oneself to what is merely human or natural would leave an emptiness in our restless souls. Indeed, more ominously, it would lead us to intellectual error and moral disorder, something that, in the Tenth Book of his Ethics, Aristotle himself seems at least to have suspected. The very metaphysical structure of our souls implies that we have an openness to all things. The intellect is open to what is. That is to say, the very direction of the intellect is somehow transcendent to any limited thing that the same intellect can present to itself as an object of its mind for its own satisfaction or curiosity.
Medieval philosophy, then, is that body of reflection that is aware that something from outside reason’s own limited confines is challengingly addressed to reason itself. But it does not know this quality of itself being-addressed in some Pelagian manner that would propose that we are the architects of our own destiny both as to its content and as to its acquisition. We do not only know what we make. Reason does not construct what is addressed to itself. Rather genuine philosophy knows that something is addressed to it by its own insufficiencies, insufficiencies that are themselves the products or results of the mind’s own legitimate searchings to explain what is. The very questions that any intellect must address to itself -- “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “Why is this thing not that thing?” -- cannot fail to indicate to our intellects that we do not cause in being either ourselves or what is not ourselves.
What-it-is-to-be-man, just as little as the product of two times two, is not then something we ourselves make or create, but something, after the manner of intellect, we discover as already in being. That is, self-reflective intellect knows certain questions that it has itself formulated that it cannot answer by itself, even when it has tried diligently to answer them, as it should. But it can understand that reason does pose questions to the human intellect that this same intellect does not answer with any adequacy even when it does come up with some sort of answer. What surprises human intellect is not so much that there is a claim in revelation to truth, but that the very questions that reason cannot seem to answer adequately do appear to have from revelation strangely plausible even if not absolutely certain answers. Faith, itself possessing its own philosophic articulation, remains necessary in the essential answers of revelation, answers that of their nature are grounded in the divine, not human, intellect. This unexpected congruity with reasons’s questions, however, is what makes revelation ever provoking to intellect, to philosophy. This curious relationship is what in fact causes philosophy to be more itself, more philosophy.
The end of medieval philosophy occurs when the questions that revelation addresses to reason are no longer asked, answered, or even paid attention to. Medieval philosophy in this sense becomes not merely a question of historic time but of perennial philosophy that will always be present whenever the human mind thinks of what is and its relation to the whole. It is, of course, quite possible for the human intellect to stop seeking answers for valid questions. It does not follow from this voluntary cessation that the questions do not remain central to an understanding of what-it-is-to-be-man. It is quite possible, indeed, to choose not to consider this strange coherence that arises from the revelational answers to questions that reason can pose but which it cannot answer by itself. Revelation does not necessitate reason, but it does challenge it to be itself. Revelation likewise remains itself, free and beyond the powers of human intellect directly to fathom. But revelation does agitate reason, does make it look outside of itself, which is indeed the purpose of reality before reason as well as the purpose of revelation before reason. But the human being can and does at times will or will not to accept certain truths of what it is. It makes this choice not because there is not some guidance from revelation but because there is. That is to say, that most of our intellectual problems are moral problems. We do not want to know the truth because we see where it might lead us and what it might entail in our way of living. We “protect” ourselves from truth by looking away first from revelation then from reason. We find we must more and more choose a philosophic position that entails a world that presupposes no objective revelation or no coherent metaphysics.
The two founders of modern philosophy are Machiavelli and Descartes. Both explicitly reject what has gone before them. Note that they do not so much “disprove” what went before but rather they “reject” it. They claim that they start anew. The central problem of modernity is in the will, not in the reason, except insofar as reason itself is “will” based or will controlled. As for newness, most of Machiavelli was already in Book I of The Republic of Plato, while the premises of scepticism, as it was already conceded in ancient philosophy, themselves demanded some non-skeptical truth. That is, if it is true that all things must be doubted, then one thing must not be doubted. It was Augustine, that most fascinating of men, who first said “fallor, ergo sum.” Both Machiavelli and Descartes affirm what appears to them to be a “new” method of considering reality.
Machiavelli rejects “ideal kingdoms” to concentrate on a “what men ‘do’ do.” He prescinds from the distinction of good and evil that had been found both in the philosophers and in revelation. He is interested in success not morality. Descartes was so hesitant about ever getting outside of his own mind that he began all things in doubt, not in wonder, as did Aristotle. As a result, he had to provide a philosophic argument of sorts, beginning with the famous “ontological” proof for the existence of God, to establish that the world really existed and existed as it appeared to do so in his own mind. He needed a proof for the existence of God to demonstrate how his own senses did not deceive him about the existence of the tree in front of his house. No theology has ever demanded so much and, at the same time, so little of human reason.
Modernity, as I call it, is the product of Machiavelli and Descartes, further spelled out in philosophers from Hobbes, to Locke, to Rousseau, to Kant, to Hegel, to Marx, to Nietzsche, and to Heidegger. The essence of modernity, and even of what is called “post-modernity,” lies in the claim that man is himself, both in morals and in metaphysics, “autonomous.” That is, all the rules of reality, including the rules or standards of his own being and acting, are to be found in his own reason, but in that reason insofar as it is not guided or ruled by anything from outside of itself. Ever since Occam and Hobbes, the will is supreme over reason. In nature, it came to be said in modernity, we cannot find any “order.” Especially, we cannot find any order or standard in ourselves for our acting, for acting for a purpose that we do not give ourselves. Therefore, we are “free.” Freedom is not the liberty to do what is right, since with no connection between nature and reason, there can be no criterion of right. Rather we have the freedom to declare what is right, whatever that right might be. Any order, whatever it be, will stem from us, not from nature or nature’s God.
We are thus beings that do not even presuppose what we are, for that would imply that what we are has some structure or basis to its being what it is. The result of this thesis again is that we are free, absolutely free. All our world is to be the result of a freedom that signifies no being, no order, that presupposes nothing but freedom. In the beginning was not the Word, nor even the Deed, but the Choice. Needless to say, we are not surprised that the classic definition of democracy was precisely this sort of freedom that allowed us to do what we want, whatever it is that we wanted to do. The social world was ruled by a maximization of groundless “freedom” that brooked no limits that came from nature. The purpose of our social being was to maximize whatever it was we wanted to do. There were to be, somehow, laws but no commandments. There were to be “rights” but no obligations. Hobbes, in this sense, remains a principle architect of modernity.
Perhaps some of the flavor of this modernity can be found in the following passage from Flannery O’Connor, a writer ever suspicious of modern things:
I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times. It’s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.
That is to say, we already have a culture of secularized explanations or habits within our souls. We find it difficult even to imagine what a world with faith, a world in which faith addressed itself to a reason that could know what is, might be like. The best thing seems alien to us. We not only do not recognize it if it exists, but we consider it to be an aberration
The Sixteenth Stanza of Robert Browning’s poem, “Youth and Art,” reads as follows:
Each life unfulfilled, you see;
It hangs still; patchy and scrappy.
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
We have not, in other words, known what we are, only what we made ourselves to be over against what we are. Modernity’s claim of mastery of nature eventually came to include its mastery over human nature through science’s ability to imagine and reconstruct the human corpus and psyche itself. Man is what he “might” be, not what he is. Freedom was no longer limited freedom but autonomous freedom that found in nature no footprints but its own.
Socrates, in “The Apology,” spoke of the “unexamined life.” He said it was not worth living.
That is to say, there were lives that were not worth living. But why should we “examine” our lives if there is no standard of what it is to be human? If our culture defines what is human not from what we ought to do but from what we ‘do’ do or what we might do with no limits on ourselves, from whence might we acquire standards with which we might criticize the way we live as inhuman? And if we cannot know anything, even ourselves, if the failure of modernity leads us not back to the nature and revelation we rejected in forming modernity but to an isolated intellectual cage out of which we cannot escape, then the end of modernity has led us to something worse than we might have expected, though where we have been led has a certain “logic” to it..
The final question I want to consider here is whether the culture of modernity can really adapt itself or be adapted to permit a Christian life or presence in its world? What modernity is, is a will centered autonomy that has no criterion but itself. This same will-thesis finds itself incapable of justifying any relation to others through any reference to nature or revelation except through a self-interest theory that as Nietzsche maintained is a position of pitiable weakness. Modernity and post-modernity really do not differ except, as Nietzsche also saw, for the reluctance to carry out of certain premises about what we can know to their logical conclusion. We can only “baptize” what is capable of being baptized. Certain ideas and certain habits must be understood as intellectual positions but they must firmly be rejected as ways of life.
What I want to suggest here is that the direction of modernity and post-modernity, taken as a whole, follows a logical progression because they refuse to allow themselves to be addressed by revelation. Or to put it more bluntly, such positions cannot be addressed by revelation because within their intellectual horizons, they allow no room for any intelligence from outside of themselves. What we see being played out in genetic studies, in moral life, in international politics and economics, is the visible result of ideas that were articulated because revelation was rejected as itself directed to reason. This rejection naturally forced reason to discover some alternative to truth. What was ultimately put forth was a theory that evaporated any reason in things, human or divine. What is being built is a counter-culture, as it were, a closed world in which the mind under the control of autonomous will systematically prevents any opening of evidence or reason that would allow the classic suspicion that revelation was in fact addressed to the reason found in things and especially in human things.
In conclusion, let me recall an old Peanuts. Charlie Brown is sitting slouched in his Bean Bag Chair watching TV. Sally comes up behind him to tell him, “I have to do a book report on Treasure Island – Do you know what it’s about?” Charlie looks up a bit to inform her, “It’s about pirates.” Looking at her notebook, Sally looks pleased with this sparse information. “That’s all I need to know,” she replies. Then she turns away, to a totally confused Charlie, to add, “I can fake the rest of it... (United Features, 1988). Perhaps it would not be too much of an exaggeration to think that modernity has “pirated” reality away from us. What we have left is a fake world, a world into which, every time we look, we see only ourselves, only our wills that could always be otherwise. The “newness” that our culture finds within itself is a newness that is faked or concocted because we do not want to consider the possibility that our reason could be saved if we would consider that revelation was indeed directed at its own legitimate but unanswered questions. The modern world is not the result of a truthful examination of the order of being but rather it is a continued effort to find alternatives that do not lead it to the truth of things, to the truth that is directed to and completed by revelation.
Originally presented as a Lecture to the Philosophy Club, Wheeling Jesuit University, February, 2001.
ON “THE PERFECT CROISSANT”: THE PROBLEM OF PHILOSOPHIC LEARNING
“Visitor from Elea: ‘But if an important issue needs to be worked out well, then as everyone has long thought, you need to practice on unimportant, easier issues first. So that’s my advice to us now, Theaetetus, since we think it’s hard to hunt down and deal with the kind (essence), sophist, we ought to practice our method of hunting on something easier first – unless you can tell us about another way that’s somehow more promising.’
“Theaetetus: ‘I can’t.’”
– Plato, The Sophist, 218cd.
“From the first I regarded Oxford as a place to be inhabited and enjoyed for itself, not as the preparation for anywhere else.... At Oxford I was reborn in full youth. My absurdities were those of exuberance and naïvety, not of spurious sophistication. I wanted to do everything and know everyone, [but] not with any ambition to insinuate myself into fashionable London or make influential friends who should prosper any future career.... My interests were as narrow as the ancient walls. I wanted to taste everything Oxford could offer and consume as much as I could hold.”
– Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning (Boston: Little Brown, 1964),171.
“No spontaneous operation of intellectual relations protects the young philosopher against the risk of delivering his soul to error by choosing his teachers infelicitously.”
– Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority (University of Notre Dame Press, 1980),100.
The perfect breakfast, it seems to me, is a freshly baked, genuine butter croissant with a cup of coffee or chocolate. But the perfect croissant is hard to come by, at least if we are not in France where it seems miraculously to reappear every morning. We have croissants at breakfast where I live. They are rather smallish, not very flaky, generally doughy, flat-tasting, though certainly not inedible. I have kept my eye open for the perfect croissant. Walter Kerr once said that we should never eat “bad” ice cream. We may have to eat bad bread, or even dried-out croissants, to stay alive. But ice cream and croissants are eaten primarily because they are tasty and delicious. There is nothing sybaritic or epicurean about this truth. It is simply an acknowledgment of the being of a thing.
We do not “need” either ice cream or croissants, yet the things we do not “need” are often symbolic of the best part of our nature. Leon Kass, in his book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature (U of Chicago, 1994), has spelled this principle out with some elegance. We are not only beings who feed or eat, but beings who dine together. Our bodies and lives are so attuned that they respond to our inner soul. We can make matter tasty, beautiful. And this making is perhaps our highest vocation in this world, as Plato taught us, when something that is, by being what it is, leads us to what is beautiful.
At the beginning of the Second Book of The Republic, we find a famous conversation between Socrates, Glaucon, and his brother Adeimantus about the praise of justice for its own sake. The two young men, Plato’s brothers, are highly commended by Socrates for being able to state the case against justice so well, but still they were not convinced by it. Thus they wanted to listen to the philosopher explain why a worthy life was a good even if one suffered for it or even if no reward resulted from it. What interests me here are the reasons that young Glaucon gives to Socrates about how he sees the need for what I call “philosophic learning.”
Glaucon begins the conversation: “Tell me, do you think there is a kind of good we welcome, not because we desire what comes from it, but because we welcome it for its own sake – joy, for example, and all the harmless pleasures that have no results beyond the joy of having them?” Socrates acknowledges the existence of such things. And Glaucon continues, “And is there a kind of good we like for its own sake and also for the sake of what comes from it – knowing, for example, and seeing and being healthy?” (357b-c). Joy, we note, is something for its own sake. There are indeed “pleasures that have no results beyond the joy of having them.” And joy is what we possess when we have what we love, when what we love is what is and its cause.
Several years ago, down on “N”Street just before Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, to continue this analogy, there was a small patisserie called “Au Croissant Chaud.” After some shopping around, I decided that the croissants at this little shop proved to be not only the best in Washington, but, surprisingly, the cheapest. The shop had tables outside in a pleasant patio on which to eat them in leisure. Even on a cold morning, it was worth doing. The patisserie was run by a family, either Spanish or French speaking, I never was quite sure. I was a frequent patron. The place was to croissants what the National Gallery is to art.
Much to my chagrin, one morning this shop closed. The place it occupied has since been engaged by four or five up-scale restaurants, none of which has ever made it. About six months after the closing of Au Croissant Chaud, someone mentioned that it had reopened down about a block farther on Wisconsin Avenue. Sure enough, there it was. But alas, before too much longer, some problem with the restaurant next door closed the place down again. I have shopped around subsequently for several years for the perfect croissant. As I have intimated, there is really not much sense in eating a croissant unless it is very good, though one should be careful of demanding such perfection that he misses in this life the fact that what is, is good, even if not perfect. The search for perfection does not necessarily exclude the less than perfect, a principle, if we think of it, that is the very charter of our own being in this world, of the possibility that we too in experiencing joy and delight begin to have intimations of what is, of what exists in light and radiance.
Not too long ago, moreover, in pursuit of this, to be sure, mad dream of the perfect croissant, I was out on Rockville Pike when I noticed a local La Madelaine, one of a chain of French bakeries in the area. Another can be found, alas with the same existential results, over on M Street. One morning, with great anticipation, I walked over to the one on Rockville Pike, near to where I had been staying at Georgetown Prep. I purchased one and a cup of coffee to be eaten outside. But much to my dismay, the properly flaky, visually perfect croissant did not taste very good. It seems not to have been made with butter, but I am not sure of the culinary problem.
I have tried the other French bakery chain in Washing, La Vie de France, with the same unhappy results, though again I ate them. In fact, I have been somewhat frustrated with the saga of less than great croissants. I begin to wonder if there is not revealed here a deeper problem of soul than we might at first sight realize. In seeking the perfect croissant, a worthy enterprise as it seems to me, I wonder what indeed am I looking for in all that I do? It is a question that ought to arise in the pursuit of any real good, I think, including the perfect croissant..
A couple of weeks ago on campus, I can across a young French girl who is in one of my classes. She was carrying a cake box. She told me that she found a new French patisserie on Wisconsin and Q Streets called Café Poupon. I had never noticed it. Evidently, they put up unsold cakes for sale at half-price at four PM every day. Naturally, a couple of days later, I hastened with great eagerness over to sample the product. Much to my delight, the lady behind the counter was the very one who used to run the old Au Croissant Chaud. However, the croissant I sampled was not just perfect. My heart was both delighted to find this place with real croissants and broken that what I ate was not the best.
Why am I beginning these thoughts on “philosophical learning” with this tale of my search for the “perfect croissant?” It is a very Platonic enterprise, of course. In the Gorgias, Plato conveniently compares oratory to the product of pastry-chefs, by extension to the baker of croissants. Plato is troubled that elegance of language or taste can deflect us from the truth or the cause of what is beautiful. We can indeed separate pleasure from the reality in which it exists and gives it its purpose. Yet, we know, that Socrates himself was the greatest of orators who sought to persuade us daily to seek what is good, what is beautiful, through the things that are. To find things that are “perfect,” it seems, we must begin with things less than perfect. Socrates is sometimes accused of being so absorbed by the perfect, by the best, that he shows a certain contempt for ordinary changing realities. But I think this accusation is not a correct reading of Socrates. Even in learning, he tells us, in The Sophist, to begin with easier things.
Socrates always denied that he was a “teacher,” however much the fathers of Charmides and Theages in the dialogues named after them begged him to take charge of their sons, to teach them how to live. But if even Socrates, the philosopher, did not teach, from whom do we learn? Surely, he did not mean that there were no teachers, and if no teachers, no students, though this is what he implies in the Meno. The subject that I want to propose here is precisely that of “philosophic learning,” learning about the highest things, learning about the whole of what is. Surely nothing can be more important than such learning, whatever else is important. Learning is not merely a question of truth. It is also a question of choosing the truth when we begin to know it. Knowledge is, as Socrates said, one of those things that both cause joy and delight for its own sake but is also useful for other things.
There is a paradox here of more than passing significance. For it is possible for us to deny that the good is good or the beautiful is beautiful, even when it stands before us. Part of the reason we can make this denial is because what is finitely beautiful is not beauty itself, even when it is really beautiful. Even the perfect croissant points beyond itself, unsettles us. It too should be eaten and enjoyed, not just preserved in some bakery museum. The other reason that we can deny what is good or beautiful even when it is before us in its splendor is that we can still manage to direct our souls, our attention to some other lesser good or beauty. We can absorb ourselves in particular goods, real goods. We can refuse to examine ourselves. The “unexamined life that is not worth living,” to cite a famous phrase of Socrates in The Apology, can make us content with some real but disordered good that will eventually corrupt our souls because we choose not to follow to its end the finite beauty that initially attracts us. As Aristotle shows us in the First Book of his Ethics, that all the definitions of good what we come up with in our pursuit of happiness have real worth. Ironically, we can do nothing wrong unless we also at the same time do something right, but something “right” out of order. We fail to put something in the good that ought to be there. Evil is the “lack” of a good that ought to be there – as the famous definition goes.
What I want to suggest is that if we choose not to learn what is fundamental, we will indeed not learn it. Or, to put it another way, we can choose as our end, as our definition of happiness as it applies to us and defines all we deliberate and decide upon, something that will betray the best in us. As Aristotle put it, if we choose as our end anything but contemplation, anything but knowledge of what is, for its own sake, we will fail not merely ourselves, but one another. Indeed, we will misjudge our place in the cosmos as precisely the microcosmoi, the beings in whom something of everything exists. We are not gods. Nor are we beasts. We are precisely the mortals, the finite beings who need not exist, but none the less who do exist and who do act following our own particular kind of existence. When we choose what is good, we are the best of the animals, when we choose badly, we are the worst, again to recall Aristotle.
One of the charges directed against Socrates was that he “corrupted the youth.” He denied it. The youth who listened to him did so of their own accord, as a kind of amusement. Socrates, unlike modern professors, never took money for anything, especially teaching. The sophists did receive fees for teaching whether what was taught was true or not. For this effort, they are sometimes called the first university professors, the first humanists. The compliment is enigmatic. Aristotle tells us not to listen to those intellectuals who, being human, tell us to listen to only human and mortal things. What is true is simply free. It can bear no cost. Truth as such cannot be patented or copyrighted. Our highest conversations thus are not only free but of things we have in common, of things whose origin is not ourselves, even though directed to our minds that we might know them. No wonder Plato says that when we first come to know something, our immediate instinct is to hurry out to tell someone of it.
Moreover, Socrates humbly claimed that he only knew what he did not know, even though the “old accusers” at the beginning of The Apology charged that he made the weaker argument seem stronger. The philosopher, no doubt, perplexes the non-philosopher. The non-philosopher wants to drive him out of the city or to keep him strictly private. The philosopher, when too proud, moreover, is tempted to see this common man’s perplexity as a sign of his own success, his own power. But it is not so. Vision and clarity are his calling. The pure of heart will see God. The blind cannot lead the blind. The philosopher is not at home in existing cities even when he must live in them. But without him, cities know only themselves. They exclude the high culture that asks whether what they are is what they ought to be. The high culture, the city in speech, transcends all existing cities and judges them, without repudiating their need. This is the high vocation of philosophic learning, to plant the city in speech in each of our souls so that we can be free of what is not true, of what is not good. This vocation can happen even in the worst regime where evil must be mostly suffered. It can be ignored in the best regime, when pleasure is separated from that in which it exists in order.
The youth who were said to be corrupted by Socrates’ activities in Athens were not his pupils. They listened to him in the streets, to be sure, but mostly as a form of afternoon entertainment. They had nothing better to do. They were escaping the discipline of their families. They delighted in what was odd or infamous or provoking, whatever it was. Socrates, talking to important Athenians in pursuit of his Delphic vocation to know himself, was the best show in town. The sons went home after listening to Socrates examine their fathers, the businessman, the poet, and the lawyer.
The sons were eager to imitate the philosopher. They tried out their new-fangled skills on their fathers, the rulers of the city. This second-hand philosophy only infuriated the fathers and incited them against Socrates as one who corrupts the youth and, through them, the city. The youth who followed Socrates, if any did, undermined the existing city. It was probably this domestic fury between father and son more than anything else that was responsible for Socrates’ legal death, a death that posed, and still poses, the problem of truth to the city that does not like to hear it. Thus, Socrates chose to live privately, as long as he could. He knew he was not safe among those who held power but not truth. He also hoped that some who heard him would carry on his teaching because the fathers would kill the philosopher but not the sons.
In one sense, no doubt, Socrates did “corrupt” the youth if the effort to learn the truth can be called a “corruption,” which it can be in a city founded on wants or passions. Socrates calls his city a “noble lie” because all who hear of it, besides the philosopher himself, will think it untrue. He followed his divine vocation to examine whether he was indeed, as the Oracle said, the wisest man in Greece, something he at first doubted. But, in the process, he revealed that the pillars of the polis, the poet, the lawyer, and the craftsman, did not know more than their own narrow specialties. The existing city could not, however, be passed on in the same form to the next generation if it lost confidence in the city’s own actual founding, a founding that differed from the principles of the city in speech. This doubting of the city’s worth was the effect of Socrates’ example. He founded another city that must be founded again and again in the souls of potential philosophers. The careful reading of Plato is the beginning of this new founding in any existing city. An education that does not end here, in the city in speech, is not worth having.
Socrates’ way of life made him appear odd, un-civic. He seemed like a fool or a madman. Existing cities, especially democracies, were always considerably less than perfect. They were the best of the worst regimes. They were also places of danger to the philosopher. To be sure, in a regime of unprincipled liberty, such as Athens, it was difficult, as I said, to tell the difference between a fool and a philosopher. The philosopher seemed silly, eccentric, crazy. Democratic freedom meant that there were no common principles of distinction. Liberty meant doing what one wanted, not what was right. Right and wrong had no objective distinction. Both fool and philosopher seemed equally quaint in the existing city since there was no standard or measure by which we could distinguish them one from another. In a disordered regime, the good man is abnormal; the fool seems wise. This is why democrats prefer what is average, even what is bizarre, to what is true. The fluctuating average becomes the norm of truth. Much evil is justified on the grounds that everyone lies, cheats, steals. This is the teaching of Machiavelli, a teaching already recognized as a corruption in the First Book of The Republic.
Socrates was safe in Athens only if he remained a private citizen. But because he was imitated by the youth, the potential philosophers, he was forced against his wishes into court, a setting unfamiliar to him, as he told the jurors of Athens. On the day before his trial, he had tried to escape from Meletus, the poet’s, charge of impiety by attempting to learn from Euthyphro how to be pious. But Euthyphro, who was himself impiously trying in the courts his own father for murder, did not seem either to know what piety was or how to teach it. When on the next day, the poet Meletus led the court against him, Socrates could honestly claim that he tried to learn what piety was in order to reject the claim that he was impious. Thus, Socrates was accused of impiety, of being an atheist, of not believing in the Gods of the City. In a very sophisticated argument, he denied the accusation. He believed in spirit. He knew where philosophy led, beyond matter, to immortality of the soul, to what is.
But Socrates’ philosophy did lead him to oppose some of the accounts in Homer and Hesiod about the scandalous deeds of some of the gods of Athens. The educator of Greece corrupted its youth when they read its noblest, most enchanting literature. Thus, if Homer charmed us who did not yet know the philosophic life, the most famous student of Socrates would have to find a way to charm us even more than Homer in order to counteract the effects of the poetry that educated Greece. This same poetry also corrupted it, Socrates thought. We must find a city in speech and reproduce it in our own souls if we are to find a charm beyond that of Homer, whose charm not even Socrates denied.
The problem of “philosophic learning,” as I call it, begins with our awareness that, to be ourselves, we are being called by something beyond ourselves. This is, as it were, the problem of the “perfect croissant” on the human level. And our capacity to be called out of ourselves begins with our sudden realization that we cannot fully explain ourselves to ourselves. The careful reading of the account of the young Plato on the death of his mentor is the first step in our effort to find a source that would explain ourselves when we are in some sense an enigma to ourselves. In any university, the reading of Plato is also a judge of that same university. Indeed, unless there is a reading of Plato, there is no university and it is best to escape from any institution that does not know this, does not live by it. In spite of what he sometimes implies, Plato was a also a poet. His charm, his oratory call us out of existing cities, out of existing academies.
On September 11, 2000, John Paul II received in audience in Rome the Rector, faculty, and students of the Jagiełłonian University in Kraków, his beloved school. In his address to these Polish compatriots, the Pope recalled the words he used in his visit to Kraków in 1997. “The duty of an academic institution,” the Holy Father, himself a master teacher, told his Polish friends, “is in a certain sense to give birth to souls for the sake of knowledge and wisdom, to shape minds and hearts. The task cannot be achieved other than through a generous service to the truth – revealing it and passing it on to others” (L’Osservatore Romano, October 4, 2000, 9). Academic institutions have duties, purpose. There are things to be passed on.
In this brief passage, we catch the words of Plato – to give birth in souls. We catch the spirit of Pascal that knowledge includes the heart. We are reminded that truth is the object or purpose of intellect. And we even see the words of St. Thomas, the contemplata tradere, that truth is to be pondered first in our own souls and then to be passed on to others. What is first contemplated is to be passed on. But we must first experience the joy of knowing itself in our own souls. If we ever have the exhilarating experience of truth in our souls, we cannot but seek to tell others of it, to pass it on.
We are not first to read these words in terms of “obligation,” though we cannot but be mindful of the end of the Gospels that command a going forth and a teaching of all nations. There is a superabundance to truth as to being. The first reaction we have to truth is simply a delight that what is, is. As Plato said, that truth is to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. The second reaction to truth is, as I have noted, the almost irresistible desire to tell someone else of it. It wants to flow out of us. It assumes that others seek it, that we belong to a kind that seeks to know. It implies that there is something into which we are all taken up, secured, made worthy.
The French historian Régine Pernoud recounts, with some amusement, a conference of French intellectuals devoted to the topic, “Were the Middle Ages Civilized?” She noted that this question seems to have been asked with little sense of humor or irony. These academics seemed incapable of seeing their own blindness. “The discussion (on the Middle Ages) took place in Paris, on the rue Madame,” Pernoud recalls. “One hopes,” she added,
for the moral comfort of the participants, that none of them, in order to return to his residence, had to pass by Notre-Dame de Paris. He might have felt a certain uneasiness. But no, let us reassure ourselves: an employed academic is, in any case, physically incapable of seeing what is not in conformity with the notions his brains exudes. Thus he would not in any way have seen Notre-Dame, even if his path took him to the Place du Parvis (Those Terrible Middle Ages [San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000], 12).
Even though I am, to use Pernoud’s ironic phrase, “an employed academic,” albeit with a vow of poverty, her words get to the heart of what I want to emphasize here, namely the peculiar blindness by which we do not see what is in fact there. We can actually walk in front of Notre Dame and wonder if the Middle Ages, which built Notre Dame, were civilized! The real question is whether we, with our question, are civilized? And most often, as Aristotle also had observed, the reason we do not see things, the reason we are blind to what is, is largely caused by our own theories, by our own choices on how we live.
What is at stake, we might ask ourselves, in the privilege of attending a university in our youth? Callicles, the smooth, dangerous politician in Plato’s Gorgias, said that he even enjoyed studying philosophy in college, but, for heaven’s sake, we put it away when we reach political power that cannot be impeded by philosophic musings with young scholars. Evelyn Waugh’s autobiography was aptly entitled A Little Learning, a title intended, without saying so, to recall from Alexander Pope, that “little learning is a dangerous thing.” Actually, “much learning” can be an even more dangerous thing. We already recalled how the little learning of the potential philosophers about Socrates led him into considerable danger. Waugh himself was delighted at his arrival at Oxford. He wanted to enjoy it for its own sake; he wanted to “do” everything, to “know” everything, yes, to “taste” everything. Yet, to do such things well, indeed to do them at all, we need to be taught. Not all philosophers are worthy. Any city knows that at the origins of its public disorders we find primarily the disordered souls of its own teachers and philosophers.
But it is not the job of the politician to confute the philosopher whose own soul is disordered, though it is his task to use his common sense to protect the citizens from the aberrations of the philosophers. Simon’s warning that nothing can protect the potential philosopher from giving himself to an errant academic is well taken. We are not to forget the primal vice of pride and how it relates to the most intelligent of the angels. The ultimate difference between the philosopher and the tyrant is not that one is more intelligent than the other. Rather it has to do with what good the one or the other chooses. And the root of all sin and disorder is the choice of oneself as the cause of being, as the cause of all the moral and intellectual distinctions. These are, I think, sobering words that do not allow us to be naive about our lot, about the drama into which we are born, about the city in which we live, especially if we do not also know of the city in speech, the Civitas Dei, that orders our souls.
Aristotle speaks in The Ethics of what happens when a politician is wholly absorbed in politics. He knows nothing of the pleasures of learning, of philosophy so that, in its spiritual emptiness, his own soul turns to the passions and pleasures of the world. We are wont to admit that politics is a full time occupation, a wholly absorbing profession. But it is a dangerous one, as Plato has often reminded us, when it is the only occupation we have, when we have only the existing city, not the city in speech, in our souls. The problem of “philosophical learning” lies here, I think.
In Western literature we find a theme that associates life and drama. Indeed, it is often the drama that enables us to see or appreciate what life is about. In its ordinariness, we may easily fail to see the drama of life. This is why it is said that we truly live at a higher level when we contemplate life at a drama. This is a theme from Plato himself. Allan Bloom put it this way in his Shakespeare’s Politics: “What is essentially human is revealed in the extreme, and we understand ourselves better through what we might be. In a way, the spectators live more truly when they are watching a Shakespearean play than in their daily lives, which are so much determined by the accidents of time and place” (9). It is the opportunity to live “more truly” that defines us perhaps more than anything else, even when all lives have their worthiness.
When Sally was about one year old, her mother ordered Charlie Brown to walk her around the neighborhood in a stroller. As a result of his reluctant obedience, Charlie could not manage the baseball team. When he walked Sally over near the game, the team shouted out at him for abandoning them. They were quite annoyed. Sally, who was just beginning to talk, was taking this all in. She was a problem. Finally, near the end of the game, when the team still had a chance to win if Charlie could pinch hit, he decides to rush Sally back home, grab his glove and bat and return as a hero to save the team. He tells a perplexed Sally, “I’m sorry I can’t push you any more Sally but I have to go save the team from defeat.” We see him in the next scene rushing back to the field yelling, “Hang on, Team! Here comes your faithful manager!” The last scene shows baby Sally near her front steps pondering the mystery of why she, at one year old, has caused so many problems. She says to herself, “I had no idea that life would be filled with such drama!” This is the real point of our human lot, is it not? We really have no idea of the drama of our existence in time. Needless to say, when Charlie got back to the field and to the plate, he struck out, much to the derision of the very team his disobedience was trying to save (Let’s Face It, Charlie Brown, Fawcett, 1959).
We have no idea that our lives could be filled with such drama. Just because we seek the highest things, it does not follow that we do not pursue and enjoy other things. Aristotle had it about right: “Whatever someone regards as his being, or the end for which he chooses to be alive, that is the activity he wishes to pursue in his friend’s company. Hence some friends drink together, others play dice, while others do gymnastics and go hunting, or do philosophy. They spend their days together on whichever pursuit in life they like most, for since they want to live with their friends, they share the actions in which they find the common life” (1172a2-7). Some do philosophy together.
What, in conclusion, would be the worst thing we could imagine for ourselves? Socrates asks Adeimantus “Don’t you know that a true falsehood, if one may call it that, is hated by all gods and humans?” Adeimantus wonders what this might mean. “I mean that no one is willing to tell falsehoods to the most important part of himself about the most important things, but of all places he is the most afraid to have falsehood there.” Adeimantus still does not quite get it. “That is because you think I’m saying something deep,” Socrates replies. “I simply mean that to be false to one’s soul about the things that are, to be ignorant and to have and hold falsehood here, is what everyone would least of all accept, for everyone hates a falsehood in that place most of all” (382a-b).
Plato often ends things with a prayer. Let me cite the one at the end of the Phaedrus: “O dear Pan and all the other gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside. Let all my external possessions be in friendly harmony with what is within. May I consider the wise man rich. As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him” (279c). This is where the pursuit of the perfect croissant leads, to a philosophic learning that, having inspired and guided us to be beautiful inside, incites us to make all things as beautiful as the being they bear allows.
All beauty is unsettling. We have, because of it, “restless hearts,” as that great African lover of Plato told us (Confessions, I, 1). In the Laws, the Athenian stranger tells us that the purpose of war is peace and order. The wise man is rich. None of us knew in advance that life could be filled with such drama. No one is willing to tell falsehoods to the most important part of himself about the most important things. Yet, the sophists tell us that they can teach us whatever we want to know, whether good or bad, without themselves being good or bad. Some friends drink together, others play dice, do gymnastics, go hunting. Still others do philosophy. Callicles said that we should put philosophy aside when we are young because politics is too serious for such adult playing. Socrates, the philosopher, was killed by Athens, the democracy, in 399 B.C. The problem of philosophic learning abides in our souls only if we build a city in speech there, where we do not want to lie to ourselves about what is.
On finishing the main argument of this reflection, I was in a dental office in Chevy Chase waiting to have a tooth filled. I looked at a magazines called Biography. Not much there but an article on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I next picked up the October 2000 issue of Gourmet, which someone had just put down. In thumbing through the pages, what do I see but an article on “great croissants,” how to tell them, how to make them. After I explained my interest, the lady in the dental office kindly gave me this magazine. In it I read, “Delicately crisp outside, light yet chewy inside, enough sugar to accentuate the butter’s sweetness, and enough salt to balance that sweetness. In a word, perfect” (224). Exactly. But the distance between the reading and the eating is infinite. The perfect croissant, the so much drama in life, Oxford as a place to be enjoyed for itself, not choosing our teachers infelicitously, no falsehood in the most important place in our souls, the prayer of Pan that we may be beautiful inside - such are the main steps in philosophical learning, in the discovery of all that is.
ON THE ACADEMIC DISCIPLINE OF “POLITICAL SCIENCE”
American universities look, at first sight, like a value-free, mega-collection of random departments and institutes that purport to divide up knowledge into manageable sub-units, none of which are necessarily related to the others. Divide et impera may no longer be a useful guide to the soldier but it is quite pertinent to the managers of universities. Contrary to the classical tradition, we can find no real hierarchy whereby we might propose one field or discipline as more important than another. No “canon” of books that all should know or read can be settled upon. All departments are, as it were, created equal. They revolve around themselves in different solar systems. Knowledge is so vast and complicated that barely sufficient time is left to fulfill requirements for this or that field. The knowledge of the “whole” has no “department” to defend its interests or delimit its requirements. Even philosophy and theology, the traditional strongholds of a knowledge of the whole, are specialized units concentrating on themselves. Indeed, we can wonder whether the pursuit of knowledge of the whole any longer exists in institutions of higher learning. It is not part of their job descriptions except on the administrative assumption that what is taught at the university, when added together, must be the whole even though no one directly intends it. What else would it be? Yet, few can see the huge areas, beginning with religion, that are left out of the whole.
All departments, moreover, compete for the same funds available to the university. Turf needs to be protected. Most disciplines like to appear as a “science,” even when, to recall Aristotle, their subject matter does not and cannot yield the certainty of mathematics. By this famous remark, Aristotle intended to protect us from the tyranny of numbers in areas wherein they do not apply to the subject matter. Within this guild-like academic system exist ranks and tenures with lots of adjuncts not competing for rank and tenure. Hiring and firing are functions of the departments themselves, though usually with some oversight from the administration, itself about as confused as the departments about what is the whole that the education business is about. Lawyers increasingly are called in to adjudicate academic disputes in terms of “rights.” Furthermore, with Internet, it is possible today to find what is being taught and even participate in some university program half way round the world. The local institution seems like a conduit for receiving what comes from someplace, any place else. The whole is the world but with no order.
We know there are famous universities, famous departments, famous journals that reflect what is considered to be “best” in this or that field of academia. Whether what is best by prestige or reputation is best in fact is a question that increasingly concerns many critics of universities. Yet internal frontiers between departments and fields are more and more fluid because the limits are more difficult to identify. The boundary stones that Plato spoke of in The Laws are regularly being stolen or moved in academia. English departments seem to be more and more sociology departments. History departments become activist. Scientists speak mindlessly of God. Theologians pronounce about justice as if that were the main revelation from eternity. History gets rewritten again and again with every new philosophic theory. Psychology sees its own face in everything it examines. Deconstruction deconstructs mainly itself. And philosophy actually seems to be realizing that it needs metaphysics, a knowledge of what is, a knowledge that it cannot accomplish unless it sufficiently recovers its epistemological soul to acknowledge the existence of things to be known, things whose very being it does not have to “postulate.” In lieu of this recovery, we have only “power,” not truth, as the purpose of both life and university.
The layman looking on these academic doings remains mostly bemused. Walter Goodman wrote a column in the New York Times (August 19, 2000) about the bewildering papers given at the American Sociological Convention in Washington. Goodman tells of dropping in on a panel entitled “Confronting Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in Academia.” He did not find the first panelist, Ann Tickamyer of Ohio University, as “combative” as the panel’s title. Her
specialty of ‘spaciality,’ which I came to understand was the study of how the allotment of physical space is used by the powers that be to keep others in a subordinate condition, seemed a plausible undertaking, but Mrs. Tickamyer’s paper was so clogged with her craft’s jargon (“access to gender space”; “maxi- and micro- analysis”; “complex multi-rational”) that it left little breathing space. She was followed by Lionel Cantu, an assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who kept announcing himself as “a pro-feminist gay Chicano.” The gist of his talk was that everyone ought to fight against his own demons of prejudice. Why not? But a drawn-out account by the next speaker, in praise of the way the ancient Iroquois resolved disputes, drove me from the room and thus deprived me of the final contribution.
When I finished this account of the meeting of the American Sociological Association, I had a feeling that the whole enterprise appeared idiotic and irrelevant. The entire world, not just Mr. Goodman, is being driven from academic rooms. When a common man stumbles into such venues, he has the eerie feeling that he has wandered off the face of the known planet. He suffers a complete loss of commonly understood words and principles.
One might hope that things in political science are better. This is the highest practical science as Aristotle called it, though not the highest science as such. It is the one science that can address all the virtues, that knows of common good and directs action to it. It knows of decision and deliberation, yes, of coercion and vice. The inner life of most academic departments, including political science departments, appears as a struggle for recognition and, yes, fame. The struggle is both against other departments within the university and against those organized forces outside the university that are most involved in the health of the respective discipline, especially accrediting organizations and professional organizations. Administrators want to know if this or that department is “recognized” among the top twenty or whatever of the field. Woe to them if not.
How is this top twenty (or fifty or hundred) decided? It is decided usually by an elaborate, arcane system of publishing credits, in terms of books, journals, and conference papers. Some Internet version of these publications will no doubt become part of the mix. The publishing houses are ranked. The journals are rated and weighted. Unless the school is controlled by a union more concerned with seniority than academic criteria, the monies that departments have available to them for each year’s salary increases are distributed, after allowance for teaching and service, by what is published and where. Prestige becomes the basis of academic success. It is not without reason that the sophists were long considered to be real founders of the university system. They were the ones who, for a fee, proposed to teach whatever it was that the student wished, whether it was true or not. This is why Plato remains pertinent to and an abiding critic of the modern university in which truth and its possibility are not the focus of attention.
This brings up the question of whether the prestige journals in a field are really worthy of their standing. Does anyone read them besides the ones found writing in them and a few members of the association? Do they have their own private agendas? Who controls the publication selection? This gets down to a question of the organization of national associations like the American Political Science Association, the American Economics Association, or the American Sociological Association. Of course, there are a bewildering number of associations and sub associations both within and independent of the national associations. Those in control of the associations or departments who have bought the going criterion want to prevent outside considerations or publications as pertinent to tenure or salary. The National Association of Scholars has sought to provide an alternate accrediting organization. It is tough going. Freedom of the press and organization, however, have made it possible for many journals and books to be published outside the control of the official organizations. A closed discipline or department, however, restricts its judgments to its own journals, refereed by its own members.
The New York Times (November 4, 2000) carried an account of the latest rumblings in the political science profession about the objectivity and worth of what is published in its journal, The American Political Science Review. Periodically over the last half century, recurrent questionings have been raised about the contents of the Review’s quarterly issues. For some time now, the articles have been heavily mathematical. Why is this so? The newer critics think it is because the American Political Science Association is controlled by those who think this “scientific” based political science provides the only or main character of its discipline. As a result, those who disagree with this position have to found and publish other journals that do not bear the controlled prestige that the Review seems to garner. The question of course is whether it “merits” any such special status. From time to time, critics will wonder whether any article in the Review has had any great impact either on policy or elections. Critics delight in pointing out that professional political science journals have absolutely no effect on actual politics. Often reviews with a single editor and a coherent policy will be much more forceful in the public realm than the committee judged and evaluated Review.
Most American universities have political science departments, though they often appear under different names. It would probably be fair to say that political science departments often serve as conduits to law schools. Whether this is a holy relationship is rarely discussed, though the legalization of our public and private life is certainly one of the most pervasive and perhaps dangerous things about our society. European universities often have had to import American type structures to have “political science” departments. On the other hand, political science departments are almost the only departments that have traditionally their own sub-section devoted to the philosophy of the field, to political philosophy. It is from this source through such thinkers as Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and a number of others, that serious consideration of the grounds of human life and reflection on it in its political forms have been found. With notable exceptions, political science departments have appeared to be more “sane” in academia largely, I think, because of this connection with philosophy.
However, there is no doubt that a positivist philosophical approach that stresses quantative analyses and numbers has ruled most branches of the field. The Review, in its own defense, maintains that the reason that three-quarters of the articles in the review bear the tell-tale mark of numbers is because that is what is sent to the Review for consideration. It is quite true that someone with a more philosophical bent would simply bypass the Review and send material to journals such as the Review of Politics, Interpretation, Political Theory, Perspectives in Political Science, or other journals of public opinion, philosophy, or theology wherein more serious considerations of the philosophical basis of political science can be more freely discussed. Academics who follow this latter path know that they must pay a certain price for this approach. We should not be surprised that truth and its pursuit often requires a more lonely path.
It must be said, however, that the Conventions of the American Political Science Association have been in recent years surprisingly open to sub-fields or adjunct associations that have presented programs at the annual convention of high philosophic caliber. The Voegelin Society presents perhaps the best known and attended philosophic discussion at the conference and one of the best in the country. The Claremont Institute also has a high caliber of papers. Groups like Christians in Political Science have good papers and present considerations that would otherwise be lacking from the program. At the last convention in Washington, I was struck walking through the massive numbers of conference papers for sale for a dollar by the frequency of papers that were of philosophic worth. I would add that the other journals within the overall American Political Science Association aegis, particularly the Journal of Politics, consistently have essays that seriously consider philosophic issues. I have attended a number of conventions of the Southwest Social Science Association which has a vigorous subsection devoted to issues of political philosophy. Looked at from this angle, the scene is by no means bleak.
One is thus hard pressed to decide where the problem lies. Were there a more sympathetic consideration at the department levels of philosophic articles no matter in what journal they might appear – something that seems only to be a question of intellectual honesty – it would be possible to downgrade the American Political Science Review as anything more than a journal devoted to a certain very narrow type of study within the discipline, the basis of which is itself dubious and in need of much more philosophic attention. Leo Strauss in his famous essay, “What Is Political Philosophy?”, remarked on the distinction between political philosophy, political science, political theory, political theology, and various other studies in government and administration. One really needs to add to this consideration the whole status of political sociology and sociology itself, the foundations of which are deeply rooted in modernity. Strauss’ question, I think, needs to be an abiding question in a journal such as The American Political Science Review. It does not have to have a Straussian formulation or conclusion but it does have to be asked again and again.
A philosophic question is not one that is answered once and for all. Rather it is a question that needs to be asked again and again. No doubt, not everyone will have the intelligence or interest in such questions, but without it, a discipline is always in danger of slipping off into realms in which any common man can judge, and judge rightly, to be absurd. Above all, political science needs continually to see itself in relation to the contemplative order, to what is. The highest of the practical sciences, as Aristotle called it, does a work that, when done correctly, points beyond itself. The discipline needs to know this characteristic of its own essence and to be constantly aware of its own higher orientation.
When we read in The Laws of Plato that human affairs are not of great seriousness, we must understand that this seeming flippancy is not intended to be a denigration of political things as such. Political science can indeed claim to be more than it is. This is the temptation of peculiarly modern political philosophy – examples of which no doubt are featured from time to time in The American Political Science Review, among other places. What we need is not fewer of such pieces, but a wider scope of discussion that brings in a much deeper realization of political philosophy and its relation to the discipline.
The recent critics of The American Political Science Review policies, in pointing out the difference between numbers based articles and more historical or philosophical articles, touch on more than they perhaps know about the state of the discipline. In 1943, Charles N. R. McCoy published a seminal essay in The American Political Science Review (V. 37, 626-41) entitled “The Place of Machiavelli in the History of Political Thought.” This essay was later included in McCoy’s Structure of Political Thought (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963). I want to cite the following lines from this reflection:
The structure of political thought in the Greek-medieval tradition was built on the subordination of practical science to theoretic science and, within the sphere of practical science, on the subordination of art to prudence. The very essence of constitutional liberty was held to depend on the maintenance of these relations. The modern theory of politics began by reversing the order between prudence and art: It will seek a liberty that is proper not to prudence but to art, and it will define the good by a judgment proper to art – by conformity simply of what the prince actually produces with what he himself intends to produce. The opening phase of modern political thought avows an indifference to the morally good; it frees man from an obligation to a moral order founded on man’s given nature. But it does not yet think of creating a new morality (157),
Needless to say, it did soon enough come to think of precisely a “new” morality, one set in contradistinction to the morality that is found in the classical-medieval tradition.
The purpose of political philosophy within the range of a journal like The American Political Science Review and its official more regional reviews ought to be a continual examining of these reversals, of the consequences of these subtle shifts in an essentially intelligible deviation from classical positions. Needless to say, if such studies do not appear within the Review or within the halls of its conventions, then honest scholars must look elsewhere to pursue a task that is central to the discipline. What the discipline needs, what the Review needs, is the awareness of the place of politics in the order of things. One cannot legitimately expect a professional review itself to produce on command such considerations. They need to arise from the souls of those who reflect on political things. They need to be presented, to be considered even against the hostility that such philosophical and metaphysical considerations often receive in practical disciplines.
In a remarkable short essay entitled “The Purpose of Politics,” the late German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote:
All political activity, from practice of the ethical virtues to gaining the means of livelihood, serves something other than itself. And this other thing is not practical activity. It is having what is sought after while we rest content in the results of our active efforts. Precisely that is the meaning of the old adage that the vita activa is fulfilled in the vita contemplativa. To be sure the active life contains a felicity of its own; it lies, says Thomas, principally in the practice of prudence, in the perfect art of the conduct of life. But ultimate repose cannot be found in this kind of felicity. Vita activa est dispositio ad contemplativam, the ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation (Josef Pieper – an Anthology, Ignatius, 1981, 121).
This, after all, is what Plato meant about human life not being that serious. There are things more serious than political things, even though these have their own felicity and seriousness. Not to know these limits of politics is not to know what politics is.
The concerns about The American Political Science Review are, at bottom, concerns about the academic discipline of political science. I have no doubt that trying to “fix” something that is not broken is a bad idea. Moreover, I think with Aristotle that if someone thinks something is wrong, it does not follow that his proposed solution will not make things worse in spite of his best intentions. Compared to other academic fields much more directly affected by intellectual disorders of modern and post-modern thought, political science is not in such bad shape. We have great respect for Nietzsche, but we do not give him a pass. That is to say, political science is a field much affected by the “new morality” of modernity, but neither is it a field that has completely forgotten from whence it came and how we got to where we are. The vita activa, the political life, has a purpose. Its relative seriousness points beyond itself, to what, as Plato said, is ultimately serious. We do not think the discipline’s soul is completely lost. But, as the turbulence in the profession seems to indicate, it is not at home with itself because it pays too little attention to what, in itself, it is.
ON THE MEASURE AND CONSERVATION OF HUMAN THINGS:
Science, Philosophy, and the Cities of Man
“For the truth of knowledge is measured by the knowable object. For it is because a thing is so or is not so that a statement is known to be true or false, and not the reverse.”
– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 5, l. 17, #1003.
“A people that were to honor falsehood, defamation, fraud, and murder would be unable, indeed, to subsist for very long.”
“I’ve come to the damndest watershed in my life – done what I wanted to do in the novel, with linguistics, children grown, sitting down here in the Louisiana autumn. Everything quiet. What now? It would be a good time to die, but on the other hand, I’d as soon not. It’s all very spooky. Life is much stranger than art....”
Human things are not divine things. Feuerbach says, brashly, that divine things are the product of human things. Plato and Aristotle describe human things as open to, but not identical with, divine things. They also intimate that it is human, as much as we can, to seek divine things. Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est. The man who sets out only to be human somehow becomes less than human. We ignore the highest things at our peril. Human things are finite, incomplete; none the less, they are real and worthy. They are worth keeping. Their very imperfection, indeed their perfection, implies something beyond themselves, some abiding unsettlement or restlessness, as Augustine reminds us. Though we have here no “lasting city,” we still found cities, preserve them, refashion them, sometimes destroy or abandon them. We are often, as Chesterton said, “homesick at home.” Still we first need homes that abide so that we might know what this curious homesickness might indicate about our human condition.
But human beings can do unworthy things, things both against human things and against divine things. To be unable, in principle, to choose and to do evil things, however, would necessitate a contrary incapacity to do gracious things. The drama of human existence would disappear if either of these peculiar capacities were lacking to us. We would, compared to what we are, be dull, bored beings. Our contentment would be like that of the animals, whereas our actual discontents point beyond us, to the gods. Rewards and punishments have their basis in human reality, in the consequences of exercised freedom.
The cities of men are set up to reflect the souls of men who compose them. If there can be disordered souls, there can be disordered cities. In fact, the maximum disorder in human things reflects itself most clearly and most dangerously in the worst regime. But the origin of this disorder is not in the city itself; it remains in the soul, in that part of the soul that can do “otherwise.” Reforms of cities, both for better and for worse, begin and end in reforms of souls. Much of modern political thought has been a deliberate effort to avoid, obscure, or deny this truth. Unless we conserve this same truth, however, we will not know what we are. Knowing what we are is the first thing we must keep. To love is to keep.
A city that is disordered, however, implies the existence, at least in speech, of a city that is not disordered. “Fraud,” a disorder, means that we recognize what is not fraud, that it need not have been, but is. The city that is completely ordered, the best regime, is the main “philosophic” concern of politics insofar as it reflects on its own experience, on its own unique activities. The exact location of the best regime is the true mystery of political things. Politics, by being politics, brings us to things that are not merely political, to things in the order of what is. The best regime of men, because it is rare, implies the best regime of the gods, the City of God. In revelation, God is, as it were, using Aristotle’s phrase, “a social and political being,” a Trinity. God is neither lonely nor in need either of the world or of us. “Will men be like gods?” has always been, since Genesis, a question formulated against God, a question that implied that men thought that they could make themselves better than God created or redeemed them. This claim to autonomy over what man is, in the tradition, has always been called “pride.” It means the claim that man is the cause of his own being and of all that is not his own being, including the gods.
In revelation, man is made in the “image” of this triune God. That is, he is not himself, by himself, a god. His relative perfection does not consist in becoming something else other than what he is, though what he is implies his responsibility for becoming this best. Otherwise, he would not be what he is, a being free enough either to reject or to attain what he is. Neither in the state of nature, nor in the household, nor in the polity, nor in the City of God is it “good” for man to be alone. Man comes to know what he is through reflecting on what he does. Agere sequitur esse. How we act follows from what we are. The being of man implies the good of man. His being is given, but not by himself; his goodness he must choose to bring about in himself. “Man does not make man to be man,” as Aristotle already knew, “but taking him from nature as man, makes him to be good man.”
Machiavelli, in a famous passage, asked us to pay attention not to what men “ought” to do, but to what they “do” do. We are, he advised, to reject the ancient philosophers and to listen to the modern ones, to himself. He did not flinch at describing some rather terrible things that men do to each other. Doing such things, indeed, he thought, could be “useful.” He explicitly rejects Socrates’ standard that “it is never right to do wrong.” Machiavelli is said thereby to have introduced observation and accurate foundations into politics. In other words, he made politics “scientific,” as Hobbes was to attempt to do more systematically some century and a half later. Both thought that they reduced human things to the lowest possible denominator and, on this basis, constructed political things independently of moral things. The “improvement of man’s estate,” to use Bacon’s phrase, could now be contemplated as a product of our own making if we did not expect too much, if we “lowered our sights.” We could become more democratic by becoming less noble. We could do this in the name of modern “science.” Human things were to be modeled on non-human things so that among human things we could have the certitude of natural things. This “improvement” was to be achieved at great cost.
But, paradoxically, men and Princes who “honor falsehood, defamation, fraud, and even murder” not infrequently last for a longer time in power than even a scientific Einstein seems to anticipate. How is it, if these are disordered acts, that they last at all? Is time necessary that the results of our acts might become visible, even to us? Politics is the public space in which the results of our acts, good or bad, appear. Machiavelli’s Prince, to recall, was empowered with such “tools” as lies, defamation, fraud, and murder precisely so that he might be “successful,” so he and his new political regime would “last.” He was “liberated” from the restrictions of what we “ought” to do, from the bonds of virtue, so that he might be successful in staying in power. If this new Prince took the “measure” of men, it was so that he might measure and manipulate them for his own purposes. The Prince was not “measured” by anything but his own criteria. He was not only a new Prince; he was a “new man,” an unmeasured, unlimited being. Man was “for himself.” Science, when applied to politics, eliminated what politics was about because the methods of science were not proportionate to the subject matter of political things.
Can we find and remove the “causes” for such disorders as lying, defamation, fraud, and murder, assuming we agree that they are disorders? Revelation was aware of the perplexity of these matters under the rubric of “the Fall.” It implied that both politicians and scientists could themselves manifest these disorders; that is to say, there was no political or “scientific” cure for them – which did not necessarily mean, frequent mistake, that there was no cure at all. Could there be a reality whose activities are not subject to scientific method, which sees only what such method allows it to see? “Reductionism” means, briefly, to identify all reality with what scientific methods allow to be considered. If the method does not reach something, it assumed not to exist. This is a radical narrowing of reality. Culture, religion, philosophy, in some sense, mean the preservation both of science and, more especially, of what science cannot reach by its own peculiar methods.
Those who ‘lie, defame, commit fraud, and murder” do, moreover, give us reasons for their acts. Their reasons are designed to make such acts seem noble, necessary, worthy, justified. This explication would not be necessary if such acts were simply what they are, if they did not call attention in their very being to their opposites, to truth, honor, honesty, and the dignity of life. These same Princes who practice these newer politics likewise complain if these deviant methods are used against themselves, even if they think “all men do them.” Doesn’t this reaction seem odd? Does the denial of a standard indicate the existence of a standard? Machiavelli’s Prince, in his own terms, might be “successful” for a time, even a long time, among virtuous Princes. But a Machiavellian Prince among Machiavellian Princes – what advantage does he have?
Ought we then to conserve not only the record of our noble deeds but also the record of our heinous ones - monuments to both kings and tyrants? Or is it possible, as C. S. Lewis intimated in a remarkable little book, a book largely about science and literature, to “abolish” man? And this “abolition,” as Lewis conceived it, is not the result of necessary cosmic forces or natural disasters but of the development of man’s knowledge, of his brain, of his science, along with, perhaps, the corruption of his will. This abolition is the product, in other words, of man’s own choice, of his free will. Is the ultimate proof or indication that man has liberty, in other words, his very scientific choosing not to conserve himself as what he is? Is he initially ill-made in such a way that his own remaking can claim to improve on the divine things that are said by the classical authors to be the highest things about him?
When we have done all we set out to do, why, in Walker Percy’s words, is it a good time to “die”? Is there a finite completion to life due to us, a “four score years and ten,” as Scripture implied? Cicero also seems to think so in his famous essay “On Old Age.” Is death itself, then, something that we should “conserve?” Or is death’s elimination, just like altering the processes of begetting and birth, a proper object of science? Would it be an improvement if scientists replaced this “four score years and ten” man with a four hundred year old man? Is extended length of time an improvement on everlasting life in the revelational sense? And why is life “stranger than art?” We distinguish art and life, yet Aquinas remarks that living things, indeed all things, are the products of the divine “art.” They all betray the classic questions: “Why is there something, not nothing?” “Why is this thing not that thing?” Things do not “design” themselves, though many things are subject to man’s re-furbishing powers. Michael Behe points out that the human eye, for example, is itself so intricate, so complex that it could not simply have happened or resulted from slow, statistical forces. It betrays a design not of its own making. This is presumably why, reflecting on what he learns about the eye, a man can invent eye-glasses. Does man himself betray the same principle? If he “makes” himself, is he still himself?
Art is a human thing, the relation between what we want to make and what we do make. If art or fiction were stranger than life, where would such art or fiction come from? Among us, art seems to come after life; among things, art seems to come first. They are what they are, not of themselves. Knowledge does not measure knowledge. Existing things measure knowledge. Truth is, as Plato said, “to say of what is, that it is, of what is not, that it is not.” And what measures things? Especially, what measures human things? Can human beings, as Einstein, the scientist, seemed to think, do things that are not human? If they “must” do them, or if they are as good as their opposites, what do we have to complain about, or even talk about? Our complaints imply a standard, a rule. Our talking implies an effort to distinguish among things. We seek to know, knowing we do not know.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, perhaps the greatest of the modern books that distinguish science and politics, Burke comments on those, like Empedocles among the ancients and Buffon among the moderns, who want to use geometry and mathematics as principles of politics. “When these state surveyors came to take a view of their work of measurement,” Burke writes,
they soon found that in politics the most fallacious of all things was geometrical demonstration. They had then recourse to another basis (or rather buttress) to support the building, which tottered on that false foundation. It was evident that the goodness of the soil, the number of the people, their wealth, and the largeness of their contribution made such infinite variation between square and square as to render mensuration a ridiculous standard of power in the commonwealth, and equality in geometry the most unequal of all measures in the distribution of men.
This is why Aristotle had already told us that we should not expect more certitude of a science than the subject matter of that science could yield. Yet, because human things cannot accurately be measured by mathematical or other scientific criteria, it does not necessarily follow that human things have no proper measure of their own.
Human things, the things that came forth from reason and will, are as such true only “for the most part.” Why is this?” It is because of the variety of circumstance and condition in human things, because there are many different ways to do almost anything good or bad. No two human acts, either of good or evil, are exactly the same. Yet, they come to be by human agency. Thus, there is an area or aspect of reality that is unique to human living, that could not exist without it. It exists because human beings exist, the reality of things that proceed from human knowledge and will. The practical sciences, as Aristotle called them, investigate the reality of things that need not be, the things that can be “otherwise,” things that proceed from human acting and causing. If these things could, at any moment, have been otherwise, we cannot study them as if they were things that would always betray the same properties and activities. We cannot exactly anticipate ahead of time what they will be. The variety of human things, including political things, thus, is more complicated than the diversities of natural and cosmic things. But once human acts have been put into reality, it always remains true that they exist in this way, not that way.
What kind of a good is science? Science, Aristotle says, is a perfection of our minds, of our knowing. But it is the knowing not of ourselves but of what is not ourselves. We know ourselves only in knowing what is not ourselves. We seek to know that things are, how things are, why they are as they are. The modern development of science, however, as Leo Strauss perceptively observed, came up against one curious obstacle.
After some time it appeared that the conquest of nature requires the conquest of human nature and hence in the first place the questioning of the unchangeability of human nature: an unchangeable human nature might set limits to progress. Accordingly the natural needs of men could no longer direct the conquest of nature; the direction had to come from reason as distinguished from nature, from the rational Ought as distinguished from the neutral Is.
This remarkable passage sets the agenda for Lewis’ “abolition” of man. It may be that the unchangeableness of human nature is not a “necessary” thing that cannot be otherwise but a moral thing that we make otherwise at our peril, at the cost of what we are.. We can do, it is possible to do what we ought not to do. If we do, the cost of our so doing is to live with our choices, with the world made by ourselves.
The “natural needs of men” meant that they could learn what they are, even if they did not
make themselves, by observing in themselves what they naturally need and strive for. If, however, what man is turns out to be itself an indifferent object of science, itself absent of any norm for its being the way it is, then man no longer is measured by the being he is given. The “Is” of man’s nature is not “neutral,” as Strauss intimates. For it implies that man does have a natural measure that is not simply the product of his own “Ought” now released from nature and dependent solely on his own constructive, or artistic, “reason.” Henceforth, the “reconstruction” of human nature in the name of progress will be in terms of, ironically, “human rights,” themselves presupposed to nothing but what the autonomous intellect, individual or political, seeks to put in place. The “rights” of man are divorced from the “being” of man and turn upon it. Human nature is no longer itself a “measure,” even though we can compare what science now proposes when it is no longer blocked by an “unchangeable human nature,” with human nature as it manifested itself in history. We can know, in the name of progress, that we have not improved fundamental things.
There is an analysis of modern conservatism, though not the only one, that makes it merely a more cautious version of modern liberalism; neither the one nor the other is based on any “unchanging” norms. If some aberration comes into existence for a long time, if it is reduced to habit or custom, it becomes something embedded, something of the past, something, yes, of human nature to be preserved. Custom can be as arbitrary as revolution. There is no reason that what men “do” do cannot itself become a habit. Habits and customs can be good or bad; they require a standard of judgment. Often, as Burke also implied, evil habits or customs can in practiced be changed or modified in such a way, still using the same words or manners, that they no longer bear the disorder in which they first appeared. But this approach is not an argument about making things that are evil to be good, but rather about how disordered things can be best modified slowly, in practice. Oftentimes, the effort to change things quickly, even evil things, rather than gradually, produces, as St. Thomas observed, not improvement but something worse. We are as responsible when our good ideas produce evil as when our bad ideas have the same result. But to understand the difference between good and bad results, we need ideas that are at some level standards, measures, permanent.
“We cling to permanent things, the norms of our being,” Russell Kirk once observed, “because all other grounds are quicksand.” Conserving and keeping are as noble enterprises as discovering and finding. It is perhaps more of a feat to conserve good institutions (or good habits) than it is to form them in the first place. What is glorious about our minds is not merely that they exist, but that they put us in contact with the world. Since we can forget or reject what we have learned, there is a place for keeping, conserving what we have learned about ourselves and about the world that is not ourselves but within which we live. Permanent things, first things, common things – such things remain even in our own rejections. But it is the function of any true keeping of things that what is kept is kept because it is worthy. This does not deny that we should know the aberrations of ourselves and of our kind as a permanent lesson to us. But the emphasis is on the fact that human things must be conserved, deliberately kept.
J. M. Bochenski once gave a vivid illustration about the relationship between the “laws” of the mind and the “laws” existing in things, and more especially about the fact that the universal laws are related to concrete things. In the world, he says,
laws are really valid. Let us take the following example. When an engineer plans a bridge, he relies on a great number of physical laws. Now, if one would assume, as Hume does, that all of these laws are only habits of mankind, or more precisely of this engineer, then one must ask how it is possible that a bridge which is correctly planned according to proper laws will stand solid, whereas one whose planning the engineer has made mistakes will fall apart. How can human habits be decisive for such masses of concrete and iron? It seems as if the laws are only secondarily in the mind of the engineer. Primarily they are valid for the world, for iron and concrete, totally independent of whether anyone knows something about them or not.
If the laws of engineering are derived and known from reality, no less so are the laws of human nature. The primary difference is that the iron and cement has no choice but to be what it is when correctly placed in a bridge. Human beings have to put into effect the laws of their own being. They are like a bridge which knows how to build itself, and a pari, how not to build itself. If they make a mistake, the bridge won’t stand. If we reject our being, we do not cease to be, but we do cease to be well.
In his essay, What Is Philosophy?, Martin Heidegger cites the following passage from Plato: “Plato says (Theatet, 155d): ‘For this is especially the pathos [emotion] of a philosopher, to be astonished. For there is no other beginning of philosophia than this.’” What is astonishing about the bridge of Bochenski’s engineer is that it works. Who would ever think, looking at it, that a bridge comes from the art that is not stranger than life? What is even more astonishing is that not all bridge designs work. It is possible to err. There is a difference between a good design and a bad one. The origin of the good design or the bad design is the same; it is found in the mind of the engineer. The engineer, in this sense, is an “artist.” It seems amazing that things work, yet we know they do when constructed properly. But, to recall Walker Percy, “life is stranger than art.” That is to say, why should human life be able to make a bridge? And once a bridge as an idea is formed, many different kinds of bridges can be made. The first mystery remains the connection of mind and being.
“Attempts are often made to convince people that we have reached the twilight of the age of certainty in the knowledge of truth, and that we are irrevocably condemned to the total absence of meaning, the provisional nature of all knowledge, and to permanent instability and relativity,” John Paul II remarked in an address to Rectors of Polish Universities.
In this situation, it appears imperative to reaffirm a basic confidence in human reason and its capacity to know the truth, including absolute and definitive truth. Man is capable of elaborating a uniform and organic conception of knowledge. The fragmentation of knowledge destroys man’s inner unity. Man aspires to the fullness of knowledge, since he is a being who by his very nature seeks the truth and cannot live without it. Contemporary scholarship, and especially present day philosophy, each in its own sphere, needs to rediscover that sapiential dimension which consists in the search for the definitive and overall meaning of human existence.
What is implied here is that we need not, on the basis of evidence, accept the movements and philosophies that end the 20th century as definitive of the human condition. Man does have an inner unity. He can develop a coherent set of principles that do explain reality. The meaning of his own existence need not be completely obscure to such a degree that he can know nothing of himself or of the world.
One of the burdens of classical political philosophy was to convince the busy politician that there was reason to let the philosopher philosophize, that even though he might be, like Socrates, a gadfly, if not a nuisance and a disturber of the peace, his life and activity were important to the polity itself. What the classical politician was not so aware of, and this is the situation of the century we enter, is not the corrupt politician but the philosopher who rejects what is. Or to put it in another way, it is the philosopher who has corrupted the politician and encouraged him to put into effect ideas that involve the radical reconstruction of man contrary any good that is inherent in his being.
The modern political tyrant, like Callicles and Alcibiades among the ancients, is apt to praise the philosophy of his youth. He is likely to have things going for him, personally and politically. The 20th century has been peculiar because its worst tyrants were often themselves philosophers. The combination politician and philosopher came to exist in a most unfortunate manner. Is there anything more dangerous than this? It would seem so. What would be worse would be politicians, busy about their own ways, attuned to the philosophers who themselves deny any possibility of knowing truth, of knowing what we are, of knowing anything but what we make, including our polities.
And yet, in conclusion, we ought not forget that in classical thought, to know evil things is not to be evil. That is to say, as Eric Voegelin remarked, there is a certain salutary good in seeing that the ideologies developed in the early modern period and carried into effect in the 20th century have reached their intellectual limits. They have no where else to turn but on themselves or back to reason and revelation. It is the task of conservatism not just not to forget our deeds but not to forget the ideas that caused them. This cannot be done without attention to human measure, to standards of what it is to be human. No doubt the 21st century’s greatest heresy will arise out of the effort through ecology and environmentalism to gain complete control of man, of begetting and dying. Thus, in the confused name of ongoing earth, nothing in life is left unregulated or uncontrolled by a narrow and demanding vision of some new man. He is to be completely formed by an aberrant science, which will decide who ought and who ought not to exist. The “abolition” of man recalls man. It is the task of the philosophic side of philosophic conservatism not merely to preserve and keep the measure of human things, but to recall what men do when they forget this measure.
In Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, written at the close of the 19th Century, we read: “When the anarchist, as the mouth piece of the declining strata of society, demands with a fine imagination, what is ‘right,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘equal rights,’ he is merely under the pressure of his own uncultured state, which cannot comprehend the real reason for his suffering – what it is that he is poor in: life. A causal instinct asserts itself in him: it must be somebody’s fault that he is in a bad way.” The mission of conservatism and philosophy itself is to preserve among men that it is not somebody else’s “fault that he is in a bad way.” If men preserve but one truth – namely, that if man is in a bad way it is his own fault, not somebody else’s – it is enough to begin to preserve and keep the measure of human things even in the third millennium. The truth of knowledge is measured by the knowable object. Life is stranger than art. Homo non proprie humanus sed suprahumanus est. The cities of men reflect the souls of men who compose them.
WHY IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY DIFFERENT?
“The political science that was created by Plato and Aristotle was established in opposition to the opinions held by the intellectuals of their time, by the sophists. And this conflict with the intellectuals, the revolt against the intellectuals, from which emerged our science, is monumentally commemorated to this day in the political dialogues of Plato’s early and middle years. From its origins the science of politics is a militant enterprise, a defense of truth both political and practical. It is a defense of true knowledge about human existence in society against the untrue opinions dispensed by intellectuals; and it is a defense of true human being against the corruption of man perpetrated by the intellectuals.”
“In his indignation at the extravagance of Plato, and his sense of the significance of facts, he (Aristotle) became, against his will, the prophetic exponent of a limited and regenerated democracy. But the Politics, which, to the world of living men, is the most valuable of his works, acquired no influence on antiquity, and it was never quoted before the time of Cicero. Again it disappeared for many centuries; it was unknown to the Arabian commentators, and in Western Europe it was first brought to light by St. Thomas Aquinas, at the very time when an infusion of popular elements was modifying feudalism, and it helped to emancipate political philosophy from despotic theories and to confirm it in the ways of freedom.”
Why we might ask, in the words of Lord Acton, does “political philosophy” need to be “emancipated” from “despotic theories?” Are not “despotic theories,” a subject familiar to both classical and modern authors, an aspect of “political philosophy” itself? And why, in the words of Eric Voegelin, does “true human being” need to be defended “against the corruption of man perpetrated by the intellectuals?” Are “intellectuals” more dangerous than politicians? What is clearly implied in both of these blunt observations is that despotism and human corruption are not accidents or happenstances but the result of “theories,” of intellectual errors originating with and deliberately perpetrated by “intellectuals” or “sophists” who, in the modern world, sometimes also go by the noble name of “philosophers.”
What has proved to be peculiarly dangerous about the modern world, especially the recent twentieth century, is that not a few of these latter “philosophers” and “intellectuals” have become active politicians. These philosopher-politicians have proved to be considerably more dangerous than the older concept of a tyrant, who was no doubt a brutal man, no doubt, but one with no particular philosophical pretensions. The philosopher-politician is bent, like the philosopher, on universalizing his intellectual vision no matter what. By contrast, speaking of the “world of living men,” Acton called Aristotle’s Politics “the most valuable of his works,” for it was a book that moderated politics and distinguished it from metaphysics without denying the validity of either. Both politics and metaphysics had an ordered place in the understanding of all that is. Philosophy and politics both go wrong when they have no fixed place or theory within which to locate themselves. As Aristotle put it, “political expertise does not create human beings but makes use of them after receiving them from nature” (1257b22-23). The origin of human beings as such is not political, even though man is by nature a political animal.
A politics without a metaphysics, however, soon becomes itself a substitute metaphysics, something that Acton no doubt saw coming from the “extravagance of Plato.” But to give Plato his due against all those ancients and moderns who see him as the origin of ideology, it was he who saw in its classic form in the Gorgias the dangers to the philosopher coming from a popular, intelligent, handsome young politician who himself contemptuously refuses to engage in philosophic discourse and thereby refuses to have his ideas put to the test of intelligence.
Political philosophy at its best is a dialogue with the politicians about the worth and validity of things that are not political, of things that are “not Caesar’s,” to use the scriptural phrase for it. It is the politicians who order the deaths of Socrates and Christ, though it is generally the theoretician, as Machiavelli sensed, who prepare the minds of both princes and potential philosophers to be able to carry out such orders. Political philosophy must consider the aberrations of the actual politicians as well as the reasons they give for these aberrations. Political philosophy must also be aware of the disorders of soul possible to philosophers themselves, something about which politicians can also know.
At first sight, this background, steeped in intellectual considerations from Western philosophy, does not even touch the whole Islamic world, so much in our attention. In this world, the state, unless it imitates Western notions, as few do, is identified with the religion and serves as its instrument. Voegelin, in fact, saw Islam as but an aspect of a broader movement in political philosophy that strove by force to put into effect the image of the world and man that it had conceived in theory. “Islam was primarily an ecumenic religion and only secondarily an empire,” Voegelin wrote in the Fourth Volume of his Order and History. “Hence it reveals in its extreme form the danger which beset all of the religions of the Ecumenic Age, the danger of impairing their universality by letting their ecumenic mission slide over into the acquisition of world-immanent, pragmatic power over a multitude of men which, however numerous, could never be mankind past, present, and future.”
In other words, one cannot avoid the question of the truth of a theory or explanation of the world, whether that theory be from religion or philosophy, from ideology or intellectual system. And the instrument of this explanation cannot be yet another “theory” that holds that there is no truth. We cannot forget that there were metaphysicians in Islam. They tried to reconcile the absolute ungrounded will of Allah to which must all submit with some rational order in things. One can wonder with Stanley Jaki whether the theoretic impossibility of making this reconciliation is not at the roots of our present political turmoil. It certainly was at the root of a similar line of thought that led from Occam to Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel, a line that placed will at the center both of the divinity and of the Leviathan in all its forms.
“How is political philosophy different?” we ask And “what difference does its difference make?” On hearing such questions asked, what first thing comes to mind is: “different from what?” Let me first address the second question: what difference does it make? We are to call things that are by their right names. That identifying, that calling the right names is the first and, in some sense, the most important theoretical act we can perform. It stands before all action, the truth of which, that is, the truth of action or in action, is itself known, affirmed, and judged. This putting the stamp of truth on action is what the virtue of prudence (phronesis) means.
“Political philosophy” is not, however, a “thing” in the sense that it is not a substance having its own independent being. Rather it is an activity of the mind in its actually knowing something not itself. What it knows is not exclusively of its own construction. That is, it does not just know itself and what it causes to be from itself, which latter position is essentially what the modern project or modernity is about. What is known in politics is how human beings stand to one another in an orderly or disorderly way, a knowledge that requires us to know distinctions between good and bad, just and unjust, in order accurately to describe what we in fact see or understand ourselves to do. Moreover, we need to “speak” this understanding. The polis to be what it is needs to be locked in conversation, in persuasion.
Thus, the first step is a negative one. It is to grant that political philosophy is not the whole of philosophy itself; it is not theology, nor is it even political science or political or legal theory. It is not sociology or economics; nor is it a physical science or based on its methodology. It is not a branch of logic or psychology or anthropology. Though it has some articulated relation to all of these disciplines, they are not what it is. Phrases such as “the economics of politics,” or the “sociology of politics,” or the “psychology of politics,” or even the “biology” or “genetics” or “theology” of politics, may have some contribution to add, but, contrary to what is usually meant by such phrases, they do not explain what specifically political philosophy is “really” about in itself.
Initially, about political philosophy or anything else, there is something to be said for getting the question it answers stated correctly. We do not always know if our questions can be answered, but that is no reason not to have the proper questions. The questions that political philosophy poses to itself arise out of “politics” and “ethics,” that is, out of the experience of human living. They do not begin with some pre-existing theory, say of contract or state of nature or modern physics or linguistics, some “science” that stands between the knower and what is known. The possibility that some legitimate questions cannot be humanly answered is not necessarily a reason for not asking them. It is not a question of despair nor for thinking that their difficulty of answer is itself a bad thing. Aristotle told us in a famous passage in his Ethics, we must “strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it is small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything” (1177b34-78a1).
In an old Peanuts cartoon, Linus runs up to Lucy with triumphant news, “Look, Lucy, I tied my own shoes.” He instinctively knows that she figured that he would never learn how to tie them. Lucy bends down to have a closer look at this unexpected feat. She exclaims, “So you did ... but you got ‘em on the wrong feet.” They both stand up straight with frowns on their faces, staring at the wrong-footed shoes. Linus replies, petulantly, “Waddya mean, the wrong feet?” In the last scene, to a defiant Lucy glaring at him, Linus shouts, “THESE are my feet!” Linus is right, of course, the first of all questions is that of existence. Is it? Is it not? Right and wrong presuppose and follow from this first question. Right and wrong are not abstractions or mere ideas unrelated to reality. Lucy, after all, is right; Linus does have his shoes on the wrong feet. Both answered different, but legitimate, questions.
In the introduction to his famous essay,”What Is Political Philosophy?,” Leo Strauss began his lecture with these solemn words: “It is a great honor, and at the same time a challenge to accept a task of particular difficulty, to be asked to speak about political philosophy in Jerusalem. In this city, and in this land, the theme of political philosophy – ‘the city of righteousness, the faithful city’ – has been taken more seriously than anywhere else on earth.” But this affirmation does not deny that in fact political philosophy is taken seriously elsewhere on earth. The very fact that Strauss could juxtapose Jerusalem and political philosophy recalls, as he intended it to recall, the famous distinction between Jerusalem and Athens of the early Christian theologian, Tertullian, who rather thought that the two cities did not have anything to do with each other.
In a sense, Strauss is almost equally as shocking as Tertullian. Strauss implies that the “theme” of political philosophy, as he calls it, is identified with the “city of righteousness.” We are surprised to hear this clearly Old Testament theme, this Augustinian theme, identified with precisely “political philosophy.” At first sight, we would not expect a pious Jew, even if he also be a philosopher, to make such a comparison. The things of God descend, after the manner of an unexpected gift. Man does not command the divinity. Strauss himself, in contra-distinction with Christian thinkers, was loathe to posit too much, if any, relationship between reason and revelation. Still, the sense that some relationship exists cannot be avoided.
St. Augustine made this connection between Jerusalem and Athens more easily but he made it as a Christian, for whom the Word was made flesh, something, as he tells us in his Confessions that he “did not read in the Platonists” (Bk. VII, c. 9). Augustine had no trouble in calling his major work, The City of God, a phrase from the Psalms, but one that also clearly associates him with the project of Plato’s Republic, his city in speech that always seemed to be searching for a more grounded home. And St. Thomas made the connection between Athens and Jerusalem also but as Christian who read Aristotle for whom the body was a constituent part of what it is to be a human being and whose God was not a lonely one. “Thought thinking itself” did, however, serve to illuminate the inner life of the Trinity, the Father, the Word, the Spirit..
Strauss wants to know how much we can know of this “faithful city” by our own powers. Implicitly, at least, he is rejecting, or at least avoiding, a consideration of how much we can learn of it, even philosophically, with revelation. He does not wonder about the curious paradox that considerations of the same “city” come up in both reason and revelation. He is concerned, however, that our politicians and judges are more influenced by “social sciences” than by the “Ten Commandments.” He implies that the “social sciences,” inventions of modernity, may be one reason why the Ten Commandments did not need to be normative. It is clear that the crisis of western civilization, which it is his purpose to examine, does not arise from observance of the Ten Commandments. Strauss may be taken to hint indirectly that the crisis of the civilization might well be best met by teachings found in “the city of righteousness,” of which the Ten Commandments stand as the cornerstone.
Eric Voegelin, also recalling Plato and Aristotle, remarked that “the science of politics” was “militant.” It was engaged in war against “untrue opinions” of “intellectuals,” sophists. “True human being” needed defense against the constructs of the intellectuals. Intellectuals “perpetrated” something that was not the truth about men in society. Clearly, “intellectuals” were not equivalent to political philosophers. Voegelin identified intellectuals with the ancient sophists against whom Plato wrote. These were the speakers who came to our town and, for a fee, could tells how to achieve what we wanted in our lives or in our regime. Themselves, they took no stand on such issues. They were neutral, “value free,” as we have come to say following Max Weber.
Even Lord Acton in the last century said that Thomas Aquinas “emancipated” political philosophy from “despotic theories” and “confirmed it in the ways of freedom,” evidently, along with “a true knowledge of human existence in society,” its real vocation. Aristotle had said, however, that “it would be absurd for someone to think that political science or intelligence is the most excellent science, when the best thing in the universe is not man” (1141a20-21). Emancipation of political philosophy from “despotic theories” and a confirmation in “the ways of freedom”indicate why political science is not the “most excellent science.” The ways of freedom lead not to “freedom” as such but to what is best in man. The despotic theories claim a metaphysical power for politics, the power to change the very nature of what it is to be a human being.
If political science is not the “highest science,” it remains, nevertheless, the highest practical science, something worthy in itself. If man is not the best thing in the universe, he is still a good and worthy thing as such. The implication follows that if we know as much as we can about this political being and its political activities, we will reach the outlines of the “city of righteousness,” the city of God. We will understand that, though we be political animals, we are also rational animals, animals who laugh. The political life is generally necessary to know and practice the virtues. But virtue, while practiced for its own sake, leads to what is able to be seen because of virtue. The one thing the unvirtuous cannot see is what is beyond virtue but not apart from it. And the virtuous or political life is a worthy life.
Classical political philosophy, in addition to Aristotle’s discussion of wit and humor in Book Four of his Ethics, could be amusing. Take the question of whether philosophy itself was “useless.” Of course, there are two meanings to the word “useless” – one would be that the thing was worth nothing at all, the other that something is beyond the criterion of “use” or utility. The example that Aristotle uses in Book One of the Politics has to do with Thales of Miletus. It seems this good man was chided for his poverty and general frumpiness. In a spirit of light vengeance, Thales decided to show the locals that philosophy was not useless after all. He would meet his critics on their own ground.
Because of his knowledge of astronomy, Thales figured that it would be a good season for olives and grapes. So in the off season, he cornered the market on the presses need to crush olives and grapes. When the season sure enough turned in a bountiful crop, the local growers suddenly found out that they had to pay a premium to Thales in order to get their produce crushed. Thales made a tidy sum and the locals realized that the philosopher was not poor because he had to be but because he wanted to be. He was busy about other, higher things and could not be bothered with useful things like business and cornering the market in other affairs to make a fortune. The conclusion evidently was that philosophy itself was beyond use by choice and not necessity (1259a1-25).
The city was a place of merchants and farmers, but these did not compose the essence of the city. On the other hand, even if we had the rulers and the ruled in a legitimate constitution, a citizenry leading virtuous lives, we still did not have philosophy. Philosophy only existed if we had philosophers. And politicians had the power to kill the philosophers, so it was necessary that the rulers knew the worth of philosophy, even while not themselves having time for philosophy. Philosophers did not have their own civil defense league to protect themselves.
Aristotle remarked in the Rhetoric, however, “it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs” (1355b1-3). But as the trials of Christ and Socrates showed, the effort to defend the philosopher against the politicians does not always succeed. But it is the first task of political philosopher, as Plato’s Gorgias makes clear, at least to formulate an argument that would convince the politician not to kill the philosopher. But once it is agreed that the philosopher might live, he has to be free to philosophize. And one of his first efforts must be to understand the limits of the city so that what can become clear on the horizon is a city that is not, as it were, a polis that comes from man the political animal who is neither a god nor a beast.
Aristotle called political science an “architectonic” science (1094a7-17). This term meant that the polity might well be able to call, say, a mathematician into military service because it needed his skills. But it did not mean that the politician had the power to decide what mathematics was. For the good of the polis, the science had to remain what it was, even though the mathematician was serving the good of the polity in the employment of his knowledge. If one asks whether a priest or a philosopher might also be called upon to serve the public good, the traditional answer to this question was affirmative. Implicitly this meant that what priest or a philosopher did remained what they were defined to be by the nature of his office or profession. The “common good” included that priests be priests and philosophers be philosophers. But the politician was not to be himself unintelligent or unaware of unworthy priests or philosophers.
Political philosophy, then, is distinct in two ways: it is a defense of the cause or need of philosopher before the politician who himself is aware of, though not especially proficient in, philosophical things. It is also a defense of virtue in the city as a prerequisite for a philosophy that is able to look to and state the truth of things. A city must know of itself that it is not despotic. It must know that the human good is itself a real good that must be chosen and habituated in customs and laws. Finally, it must know that the things beyond politics are worthy things, of more ultimate moment than the polis itself, however necessary it may be. The philosopher knows that most human lives are not themselves devoted to philosophy, even though they may be aware of and indeed interested in philosophy. Yet, it seems unjust that those who are not in practice philosophers do not have a hope of achieving the higher ends of which philosophy makes us aware in an acute fashion. Revelation, in fact, addresses itself not merely to virtue but to happiness and to contemplation, to a way to the highest good not just for philosophers but to everyone. Revelation articulates a more clear and defined end than even the philosopher could envision by his own powers
After Thales proved he could make a minor fortune cornering the olive and wine presses, he returned to philosophy, to the pursuit of the highest things. When Socrates was executed, he reminded Crito to offer a cock to Asclepias, the god of healing, from whence he passed to the Isles of the Blessed to speak with Homer and Rhadamnathus and the other philosophers. In preparing to die, in dying, he was healed. When Christ died, He did speak to a politician, a Roman governor, but not to a philosopher. He did speak to ordinary thieves. One blasphemed Him. Christ remained silent. The other acknowledged that he himself was justly executed and asked to be remembered in His Kingdom. The city that killed Christ and the outlines of the city in speech converge. Political philosophy is different because it can, if it will, consider these cities – Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, the city in speech and the Righteous City, the City of God. If it will not make such considerations, then, in all likelihood it falls back on Lord Acton’s “despotic theories,” theories that do not know the “ways of freedom,” nor the true being of man, but the corruption of the intellectuals.
“Thought,” Aristotle said, “moves nothing; what moves us is thought aimed at some goal and concerned with action” (1139a36-37). The difference of political philosophy is that it is genuinely concerned with the thought that “moves nothing” as well as the thought concerned with action that leads to our end. Political philosophy is different because its own questions lead it to the concern about the content of the end, this end most enigmatically described as the “city of righteousness,” now not seen merely as either the highest of the social sciences or the handmaid of theology, but as the true understanding of that which is, however it be known to us, provided that we have asked the right questions and have heard answers to these questions as asked.
When the subject of “leisure” appears in The Politics, we are suddenly aware that the most important things take place not in constructing or even running the polity, but in living in it. What are the serious occupations of leisure, what things are to be done simply because they are true or beautiful? Plato’s answer to this question was “singing, dancing, and sacrificing” (803). Aristotle’s answer is philosophy (1279b11-15) and, perhaps, music. Political philosophy exists so that the politician, who can prevent these things, can also come to see that he best let them be what they are. The way of the politician and the way of the philosopher are not the same, but they do depend on each other if we are to be both open to the whole and aware that we cannot, by our own powers, attain it.
9) Presented as a Lecture to a conference sponsored by Christians in Political Science, Calvin College. Published in Reason, Revelation, and Human Affairs, Edited by M. Guerra (Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2000.)
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.
FIDES ET RATIO:
APPROACHES TO A ROMAN CATHOLIC POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
“Philosophy could be employed, not indeed as a principle allowing one to pass judgment on the truth or falsity of Revelation, but as a tool with which to probe its meaning and counter any attack that might be leveled against it in the name of reason.”
“Revelation clearly proposes certain truths which might never have been discovered by reason unaided, although they are not of themselves inaccessible to reason. Among these truths is the notion of a free and personal God who is the Creator of the world, a truth which has been so crucial for the development of philosophical thinking, especially the philosophy of being. There is also the reality of sin, as it appears in the light of faith, which helps to shape an adequate philosophical formulation of the problem of evil. The notion of the person as a spiritual being is another of faith’s specific contributions: the Christian proclamation of human dignity, equality and freedom has undoubtedly influenced modern philosophic thought. In more recent times, there has been the discovery that history as event – so central to Christian revelation – is important for philosophy as well.”
“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..... We never understand more than the half of things when we neglect the science of Rome.”
At first sight, “among the heathen,” so to speak, if not also among believers themselves, the
very idea of a “Roman Catholic political philosophy” is rather quaint, if not actually shocking. Roman Catholicism prides itself on distinction and clarity. Aquinas, who never lets confusion reign, is central to its identification of itself. “Grace builds on nature.” Both can be intellectually explicated and, if necessary, defended. Therefore, reason to be helpful to revelation must be what it is, acting reason on its proper object, on what is.
But not just anything that calls itself “reason” is reasonable. We must add, if it is not a tautology, “true reason.” Thus, when some philosopher, implicitly or explicitly, denies, say, the principle of contradiction, we do not, as Aristotle said, have to believe him, even less, agree with him. We just have to watch what he does to see that implicitly he upholds in practice this basic principle. He invariably opens the door before he walks through it; he assumes that it cannot be there and not there at the same time and in the same place. And yes, we have to trust our senses when we see him open the door.
Philosophy and theology are both legitimate; both can establish their foundations. The intelligible content of each is comprehensible to the other. But they are not related to one another as reason to unreason respectively. Revelation is a grounded claim to truth, not to irrationality. Things can be beyond the power of particularly human reason to know without necessarily being beyond reason as such. We are the lowest, not the highest of the intellectual beings. “Man is the best of animals ... [but] there are other things much more divine in their nature even than man,” as Aristotle put it (1141a35-b2). Revelation addresses itself to the same reason that philosophy considers. Indeed, the very fact that reason brings up questions, legitimate questions, it cannot fully answer on its own terms, means that it is not a complete account of all things even when it is capax omnium, even when it wants to know all things.
Human reason does not “explain” everything. It is “philo-sophy,” the friendship with or love, not the cause, of wisdom. It therefore remains open to what it does not yet know, even, with Socrates, knowing that it does not know. “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (982b13). And they began this effort, Aristotle notices, only “when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured” (982b23-24). The most important things are beyond comfort and necessity. Both faith and authority in revelation rest not on themselves but on someone who does know, who does see, who does hear.
By any objective analysis, revelation appears to be much more conscious of reason than most philosophical reason is of revelation, though there is always Plato to caution us here. Philosophy has to be proper philosophy to hear revelation. Revelation, rather frequently, has to defend philosophy itself. “Christian doctrine is primarily concerned with offering salvation, not with interpreting reality or human existence,” Josef Pieper has written. “But it implies as well certain fundamental teachings on specifically philosophical matters -- the world and existence as such.” Reason that illogically proclaims its own autonomy can, however, consciously choose to make itself into a closed system incapable of openness to what is. Philosophy, and this is the dark side of its mystery, can choose to deny itself and still call itself “philosophy.”
This possibility of philosophy denying itself is no doubt at the origin of St. Paul’s famous impatience with the philosophers: “Where is your wise man now, your man of learning, your own subtle debater – limited, all of them, to this passing age? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish” (1 Corinthians, 1:20). Much of modern philosophy – which surely considers itself as “the wisdom of this world” – can best be understood as the intellectual and logical consequences of this choice of denying to itself, frequently indeed “foolishly,” some basic element of the proper “range of reason,” to use Jacques Maritain’s phrase.
The Bible, to be sure, is not immediately a “political” or “philosophic” tract. It is primarily an account of a way, indeed the way, of salvation. Yet, for philosophers, if they set their mind to it, the Bible is neither incoherent nor unintelligible; it is not lacking in its own philosophical profundity. It can be read by philosophers, believed by the politicians without making either philosopher or politician any less profound or, in spite of Machiavelli, any less competent. Theologians and believers can likewise philosophize; they have in fact done so. The notion that philosophy and theology are two contradictory ways of life does not explain the fact that at least a few men, perhaps more than a few, are legitimately both the one and the other without confusing the one for the other.
Philosophers and believers, moreover, must, like everyone else, live in cities in this world, even when they call Augustine’s “City of God” their true home. They are both aware that we “have here no lasting city.” The New Testament in particular has very little to do, directly, with politics. In fact, it frankly acknowledges that the things of Caesar and the things of God are not the same (Matthew, 22:22-23). Almost for the first time, we have here a revelational source affirming the validity of the state in its, the state’s, own terms. The things of Caesar, however, still need to be explicated philosophically to show why it is “natural” that man is a “political animal.” Without the polis, he cannot flourish, cannot practice all the virtues he discovers in himself, cannot have the leisure for things beyond politics.
When Paul told Christians to be “obedient to the Emperor” (Romans, 13:1-7), the Emperor was Nero, a tyrant, as Tacitus graphically tells us in his Annals.. Paul was not, however, approving tyranny, nor denying its obvious possibility or dangers. Nor was he an advanced Nietzschean who saw in “turning the other cheek” a sure sign of political ineptness and betrayal of worldly power. He was rather pointing out, something already found in Aristotle, that man was by nature a political animal, but one who often revealed his own inability, or better, unwillingness to rule himself. Interestingly, revelation seems to have more to do with our inability or unwillingness to live the virtues than with our more successful efforts to define them. “I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it,” as Thomas à Kempis remarked in a famous phrase in the Imitation of Christ. Therefore, at times, indeed often, Paul acknowledged that the ruler also possess “the sword ... to punish wrong-doing.”
Aristotle indicated much the same thing at the end of his Ethics when he spoke of the transition to The Politics (1179b31-80a4) about the need of law and coercion. Neither philosophy nor politics, however, could quite explain why this abiding wrong-doing, this “wickedness,” as Aristotle called it (1263b23), persisted in all human polities. This very perplexity was something to which revelation addressed itself in the account of the Fall. There, the problem of human disorder is located not in things nor in human faculties as such but in the operation of the will, and therefore in personal choice (Genesis, 3:1-24). The Philosopher, as Aquinas called him, did notice, without revelation, that human nature was in a kind of “bondage” (982b29). Philosophy had questions it could not quite answer. This “unansweredness,” as it were, was theoretically bothersome. It caused many a good philosopher to wonder if the world was not created “in vain,” with no purpose or meaning, hardly a consoling alternative. Paradoxically, it was revelation’s odd answer to this enigma that charged the universe, particularly the human universe to which all else seemed ordained, with risk, drama, uncertainty, and, yes, the possibility of love and glory. Such things are only possible if our choices make some ultimate difference, if we really do choose between right and wrong.
Evidently, there should no more be Roman Catholic politics than there should be Roman Catholic physics, however much the methods and subject matter of politics and physics, and, yes, theology, might differ. “It is the mark of an educated man,” Aristotle tells us, “to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs” (1094b25-27). Yet, perhaps it makes a difference what our philosophy is, what our understanding of the world is before we even can have either physics or politics. A politics without a metaphysics can itself be an unacknowledged metaphysics. Moreover, if political science is itself a valid, but limited “practical science,” elucidating a certain range of reality, the reality of free human beings in exchange about what they are and choose in this world, it cannot, without bad will, refuse to consider revelation’s insight into political things when politics does not solve its own problems in its own terms about its own subject matter.
“Although the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels have little to say about the proper attitude for Christians to adopt toward the social order and the state,” Herbert Deane has written,
certain fundamental principles are clearly established. On a number of occasions, Jesus warned His disciples against thinking of His kingdom as an earthly kingdom, to be established by a revolt of the Jews against Roman rule and maintained by ordinary political instruments.... Jesus not only insisted that His kingdom was not of this world and so discouraged his followers from thinking of Him as a Messiah who would be the temporal ruler of the Jewish people, but He also endeavored to draw His followers’ attention away from interest in worldly matters such as the attainment of wealth or power over other men.
Roman Catholic political philosophy would, thus, agree that the ultimate destiny of each human being is not located in politics, something also found in its own way in Plato and Aristotle.
Roman Catholic political philosophy would also recognize that in leaving politics relatively free, Christianity implied that the political order had its own worth and, indeed, its own dangers. It accepted, in other words, the teaching in Genesis that nature, including angelic and human nature, was good in its fundamental being. The origin of evil -- the lack of something that ought to be present -- was neither in God nor in nature as such. It was in a good and free faculty that could cause things to be otherwise -- in brief, in the human free will. Hannah Arendt is right to call out attention to the fact that Augustine is the “first philosopher of the will.”
Roman Catholic political philosophy will thus always be heavily “will” oriented, even when it understands that the will is a spiritual faculty only “determined” by the good known in intellect. It is not, in the modern sense, “pro-choice” -- pro-whatever is chosen just because it is chosen. But it is pro-will, pro-free-will. When evil is chosen, it always must at the same time exist some good, some good generally placed out of the order of truth by the power of will. It is because of this remaining good that Roman Catholic political philosophy must retain the capacity for change or conversion in all human things. It cannot ultimately for this reason be a dogmatic pessimism or optimism. It is realist without being Machiavellian or utopian, without denying the dire conditions that do happen or undervaluing the good that does occur in this world’s regimes.
The early Christians were primarily city dwellers, though some of the more pious ones began to flee the city’s corruption into the desert. Cities, if left to themselves, could and did become morally unliveable. A certain “exodus,” individual or collective, always remained a possibility to Christians from their Jewish origins. The founding of America itself, with its Old Testament overtones among the Puritans, is not unrelated to this sentiment. The city was, however, the scene within which the positive things that Christians were commanded to do – forgive, love, serve their neighbor, keep the commandments – were to be visibly carried out in a real, not abstract, world. The dictates of faith and charity were expected to bear fruit in the world -- the Good Samaritan was also a real citizen. The accusation that Christians abandoned the world was never really based on an understanding of the demands made of its own members. This is why Christian metaphysics has always insisted on defending the reality, the ontological reality, of the world itself. Augustine could thus argue that Christians were good citizens, good soldiers even. The city was also the arena wherein Christians found themselves, in their own way, in the predicament of Socrates. They were tried by the state for telling the truth and living as they were commanded -- something as well true in the century just closed as in the first century. Christians were often seen, however, as a-political, as not believing in the gods of the city. When they first appeared in any numbers, they were in one of the most powerful and indeed in one of the most decent of historical states, one that, to reform itself, thought, as did someone like Diocletian, that it should demand full civic allegiance to the city’s gods.
Thus, we can ask again “what is Roman Catholic political philosophy?” It is obviously not simply “political theology,” a description of just what Scripture may say about political things, however important this may be. Nor is it an effort to compete with, say, Aristotle or political science about its own subject matter. Indeed, if anything, it claims Aristotle as its own, even knowing his non-Christian origins and certain problems connected with him. Fides et Ratio, the 1998 Encyclical of John Paul II, is not itself, as was, say, his Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) or his Centesimus Annus (1991), directly social or political in content or inspiration. We would not call Fides et Ratio a tractate in political philosophy, however pertinent it may be to political philosophy in its own way. Indeed, it is the peculiarity and strength of Roman Catholicism that it does not, following Scripture, have a specific political program or philosophy, something explicitly reaffirmed in Fides et Ratio (#49). Politics, as it were, is not one of the things revealed in Scripture, but it is not taken less seriously for all that. If we are to know political things, we must largely rely on reason and experience. It is necessary to read the philosophers and consult the constitutions, to know how peoples succeed and fail in history. No doubt, certain scriptural passages and teachings can and should have political meaning. Christians were supposed to live in this world, “quietly,” if they could, as “sojourners and wayfarers” (1 Peter, 2:11).
The fact that Scripture does not contain a systematic political teaching modeled on The Republic of Plato or The Politics of Aristotle -- or even Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau, who in fact spend a good deal of time on Scripture – does not imply that there is something lacking in revelation. It rather indicates that much is to be learned from Plato and Aristotle, from the philosophers, even for the sake of Scripture. For revelation to be revelation, philosophy must be philosophy -- good philosophy. Surely this is the central thesis of Fides et Ratio. Scripture may not even imply that there is something lacking in politics, unless perhaps politics claims, as it can, something more than it is in itself. Christ says to Pilate, “you would have no authority over me at all were it not given to you by my Father” (John, 19:11) That is, the Roman governor has authority, but neither he nor his polity invented what authority is.
The first step in politics is to think of its form, that is, its of limits, of what makes it to be politics and not something else. A politics that conceives itself to have no limits is the main rival to revelation in any age, including our own, a view, ironically, already found in Scripture itself. Politics is the highest practical science, not the highest science as such, as Aristotle also noted (1141a20-22). When it claims to be the highest science, as it often does, it claims in effect to take the place of both reason and revelation, to become itself a metaphysics defining by itself what is. Early Christians first met politics when politicians wanted to get rid of them as being threats to the state, even, as Augustine was asked at the beginning of the City of God, of being the cause for the decline of Rome -- a perennial theme that later became famous with Gibbon and Nietzsche. The Augustinian answer to Rome, interestingly enough, was not to deny in principle legitimate political authority to Rome. Rather it was to point out, in the very name of its greatest minds, Varro and Cicero, that Rome itself did not observe its own philosophic standards which themselves were quite valid.. Revelation, in other words, said to reason that it was not reasonable enough.
Fides et Ratio barely speaks of what would ordinarily be called political things. It speaks of philosophical things, of what is revealed, of how and why there is a relation between the one and other. Theology, in the Christian sense, does not begin with reason, though it presupposed the perambua fidei, the principles we need even to recognize that something is addressed to us. It begins with what is revealed. But it soon discovers that to understand and render in intelligible order what is revealed, it needs to turn to issues of human knowing, human experience, to philosophy. “The chief purpose of theology is to provide an understanding of revelation and the content of faith” (#93). What is characteristic of Roman Catholicism is this “understanding,” this effort to make clear and available in a coherent whole what is revealed in the myriads of narratives in Scripture. It does not see this elaboration as a violation of the explicit words of Scripture, which it must respect as given. It sees it as an obligation to illuminate the intelligibility that is found there. And this endeavor does not imply that somehow God was rather sloppy in not revealing Himself in a concise form that would not require so much human theological and rational effort. Rather it suggests that we are intended to use our minds even in revelation, or better, we are to use them better because of revelation. If there is any objection to Roman Catholicism in its reflections on the meaning and place of political things, it cannot be on the ground that it does not take reason seriously and intend that reason, because of revelation, be more of itself, more reason.
If, as Strauss, among others, often stress, philosophy is a “knowledge of the whole,” a knowledge rooted in the capacity of human reason, this same reason cannot arbitrarily exclude what is both understandable and claiming intelligible content, particularly when revelation has turned to philosophy precisely to explain more fully what is revealed. “It is necessary therefore that the mind of the believer acquire a natural, consistent and true knowledge of created realities – the world and man himself – which are also the object of divine revelation,” John Paul II writes. “Still more, reason must be able to articulate this knowledge in concept and argument. Speculative dogmatic theology thus presupposes and implies a philosophy of the human being, the world and, more radically, of being, which has objective truth as its foundation” (#66)
Roman Catholic political philosophy, thus, does not think, whatever the distinction of faith and reason, that the subjects of political life (i.e., individual citizens) and those who receive revelation live in different worlds. The “knowledge of the created universe” is also “the object of divine revelation.” We must take the knowledge of the whole seriously. “It may well be,” Josef Pieper has remarked, “that at the end of history the only people who will examine and ponder the root of all things and the meaning of existence, e.g. the specific object of philosophical speculation – will be those who see with the eyes of faith.” It is not insignificant at the beginning of the 21st Century that it is the Pope who speaks of the legitimacy and necessity of philosophy.
Contrary to what we might expect, Fides et Ratio is not primarily concerned to relate philosophy to revelation. No doubt it does this, but its main purpose is to address itself to philosophy and its modern condition. Indeed, it argues that it is in the strongest possible interest of revelation for its own integrity that philosophy be itself. “It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition. By the same token, reason which is unrelated to an adult faith is not prompted to turn its gaze to the newness and radicality of being” (#48). “Weak reasoning” is not an ally of revelation. Revelation thus does not hesitate to engage the philosophic mind and examine its own proposed validity. This might annoy philosophers who want to claim the exclusive turf of reason for themselves. But they cannot maintain this position if the object of the mind is not itself but what is, all that is. Philosophy cannot pretend or prove that revelation does not exist and exist as something also directed at itself. Christianity takes the condition of the philosophic mind seriously because it sees clearly that its own truths depend for their integrity on the validity of a philosophy that can know, and know what is. That is, revelation defends both the mind’s own introspective powers and the fact that those powers do not simply turn on themselves but reach the world, reality, and can speak or judge the truth of things.
“To believe it possible to know a universally valid truth is in no way to encourage intolerance; on the contrary, it is the essential condition for sincere and authentic dialogue between persons” (#92) The notion that tolerance is the first principle of political philosophy and not a practical principle for engagement in the highest things is itself a product of philosophic modernity. This tolerance must, at the risk of fanaticism, deny, it is said, the possibility of “universally valid truth.” In other words, the very claim of “universally valid truth” is said to be fanatic, and thus not worthy of examination. This position is itself the product of philosophy that must be examined for its philosophical integrity. It takes no genius to comprehend that if the principle of absolute tolerance is true it is, by its own definition, false. The Pope draws out the consequence of this contradiction, namely, that it is itself intolerant to refuse to examine a philosophy that claims to be true. Moreover, there are conditions in which this examination can and should take place – in “sincere and authentic dialogue between persons” – that is, the very opposite of fanaticism or intolerance. This is something already found in Plato, of course. That widespread discussion of reason and revelation is not taking place, on the grounds that revelation has nothing to talk about or no opening to reason, is already, as it seems to Christians, a sign of unacknowledged fanaticism. The condition of the polity is itself the result of ideas proceeding from the lowering of the sights of virtue on which modernity was originally built.
Clearly, classical political philosophy pointed to and in a sense brought human beings to friendship which itself depended on “the sincere and authentic dialogue among persons.” Roman Catholic political philosophy cannot be unaware that the link between reason and revelation is most graphically attested to by St. Thomas’ use of amicitia as the natural analogate for caritas. That is to say, tolerance at its best is a condition of manners and friendliness that enables the highest things to exist in conversation.
“The Word of God is addressed to all people, in every age and in every part of the world; and the human being is by nature a philosopher” (#64). Interestingly enough, the Pope’s strongest words in criticism of the failure to study philosophy in the modern words are not directed at the professors but at theologians. “I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians” #60.