From the Publisher: Mystique and Politique

Over the years, there is no sentence I have more often quoted, I suppose, than this conviction of Charles Peguy: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” This conviction gives the metaphysician, the poet, and the mystic the courage to believe that he or she can make a contribution to the political life of the world.

Ideas have consequences, and ideas are generally born in the interior life of struggling human beings, alone often in the darkness. In our own era, so many of the ideas that have come to drive the world were first glimpsed in prisons and in concentration camps. Creative ideas are almost always born out of suffering or in neglect; the stone at first rejected by the builders later becomes a building block. This law in any case seems universal: first the life of the spirit, then politics. Those who are ignorant of this law live unknowingly from the spiritual gains wrested from battle by some dead mystic.

Nonetheless, the relation between metaphysics and politics is not so simple as some Integralists in every age imagine. These well-meaning souls would like to believe that the political well-being of a people derives from following philosophers who have orthodox and correct ideas. What is necessary, they suggest, is to get the metaphysical propositions straight and then to put them into practice. Deduction is sufficient.

Other Integralists admit that prudence is also necessary, since life is not a seamless garment of logic only. Still, they spend most of their hours seeking theological purity. They labor and labor over their foundational principles, worrying about even minor deviations, and condemning rivals. They hardly ever get around to politics. As a division of labor, this is acceptable — provided it is carried out both with humility and with gratitude to those who do the dirty work of the city. Alas, where the virtues of humility and gratitude are rare, Integralism is at bottom a rage against the imperfection of God’s work in history.

Before metaphysics can be applied to politics, three features of political life must be observed. First, nature (in whose contingent realm politics unfolds) reaches its ends only “for the most part.” Most natural things are not perfect specimens of their kind; some are misshapen and defective, and a few are monsters. Second, human plans often go awry in both the private and the public realm. Unintended consequences are at times more numerous than intended consequences. “’Tis a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Third, as if all this were not enough, what men will they often do not do, and what they will not, they often do. In short, sin. Politics is to metaphysics like a crosswind, contrary and tempestuous. Politics howls with irony and tragedy.

In politics, therefore, beware of men of logic.

This is why, perhaps, (let him speak for himself) one of the peripatetic editorialists of Crisis evoked so much response to his simple question last December: What is the relation between metaphysics and politics? This question was not an apodictic claim. It was no denial of the relevance of the one to the other. It was certainly not, as some replied, Machiavellian. It did not assert that truth has no relevance to action. It was a question.

It is a good question. In a world of (a) contingency, (b) unintended consequences, and (c) sin, is it necessarily the case that Nation A, founded on pure orthodox doctrine, will engender a culture more pleasing to the exigent Christian eye than Nation B, founded on truths that, while not contrary to Christian truth, are less pure, less complete, and more indeterminate? Much would seem to depend on many factors other than pure doctrine.

Put another way, politics does not consist entirely of declarations of propositions. The rights of the people of the United States, e.g., are not protected by “parchment barriers,” James Madison said, but by the habits and the institutions of the American people. Practices also matter; as do the number, quality, and efficacy of free associations. There are and have been states founded verbally and ritually upon Catholic doctrine, of whose practices, habits, and institutions theologians of good repute have not formed a high opinion.

The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, nonetheless, did think that the Founders of the United States — although not Catholic and not aiming at Catholic purity of doctrine, but led by Providence — “built better than they knew.” This can happen. Unintended consequences may be far better than anyone dreamed. A people can all unknowing be guided by the hand of God. Tocqueville certainly saw the hand of Providence at work in the design of the institutions of the United States, although he was far from certain that our people would in the long run prove worthy of such institutions.

Thus, to claim that American institutions are well- designed is not to say that American culture in 1991 is healthy. Our culture is seriously ill. That illness arises from our own badly spent liberty, not from the institutions that have allowed us to exercise it.

What is particularly Christian about the design of the institutions of the United States is their full and frank recognition of the fact of original sin, described in quite secular but telling words by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay in the Federalist. In this they were different from the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, from Rationalists, Deists, and Transcendentalists of the many “utopic” and optimistic stripes. They were designing a Republic for sinners, not for saints. It’s a good thing they did. Sinners are what we are.

Not many metaphysicians are philosophers of sin. That’s one reason why in politics metaphysicians do not have a good reputation.

Not many political persons think carefully about the moral and religious ecology of their actions; that is why “pragmatism” and “expedience” often seem self-stultifying.

Politics begins in mysticism; mysticism, alas, always ends in politics. Yet it is a very great advantage — for which Providence is devoutly to be thanked — when the mysticism incarnated in the politics of one’s own place makes room for something written by another great Frenchman, Leon Bloy: “At the heart of Christianity is the sinner.”

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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