Sense and Nonsense: Political Philosophy and Christian Intelligence

Christianity has been called the most materialistic religion in history.  That is an illuminating point.  For Christianity is so much more than a moral code, a recipe for virtue, a system of comfortable idealistic thought.  It is a religion of acts and facts…. For Christianity is a religion of things that have happened — A baby born in Bethlehem, a body nailed on a cross.  It is a religion of continuing daily action, united around solid things like font and altars, bread and wine.  ~Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind, (Ann Arbor, Servant, 1978), p. 111.

For intellectuals … corruption by the ideal is an occupational risk. ~Yves Simon, The Philosophy of Democratic Government (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 92.

My subject is Christian, particularly Catholic, intelligence in its relationship to political philosophy. My thesis is that the actual Republic, indeed the West itself, is in serious crisis because it is less and less capable of explaining and thus defending itself to itself in terms of anything but itself. The Republic’s own public philosophy, by which it justifies itself, has turned in practice to that strand of modern thought which deviates from the best traditions of Western and American Founding, in the direction of man’s self-positing of himself as the only justification of what he is and does. Thus, he does not discover what he is as a gift from “somewhere,” to which he must look for what he is. But rather he totally considers that he “makes” himself, presupposed to nothing but his own free intellect.

My argument, in this context, is that an essential ingredient contributing to this process has been a rapid erosion of Christian intelligence itself, so that, in several sectors, at least, particularly those related to political philosophy, this Christian public intelligence has in fact, in the eyes of many perceptive observers, come to maintain little more than the prevailing moods and enthusiasms of an ungrounded liberalism or an unrealistic socialism, though both of these filtered through a quasi-Christian terminology whose lineage retraces the history of the West.

Some twenty years ago, at the University of Detroit, Professor Leo Strauss still assumed that a Catholic institution of higher learning might, through Aquinas at least, retain its contact with the revelational and classical traditions. Were Strauss alive today, a man who did more to revive this very tradition than anyone, I think, he would recognize nothing intellectually distinctive in more popular Christian intelligensia, nothing that he could not mostly find in the adherents of the current ideologies. Strauss would, of course, have had to reckon with the Pope, perhaps the most original and incisive mind in the Church today, but, contrary to what we might expect, it is practically impossible to find out in most Christian intellectual circles just what the former Polish philosopher actually teaches. This is why, incidentally, I would hold that no one should graduate from a Christian university today without a thorough grounding in John Paul II’s teachings, both before and after he became the pope. This thesis was made very well by Professor Brian Benestad, in his very significant book, The Pursuit of a Just Social Order.

The recent widespread publicity given to the nuclear war issue as a religious phenomenon, in my view, in its intellectual explications, is often closer to the arguments of Hobbes than to classical or to Christian political philosophy. That is to say, “evil,” that great, perplexing mystery which must be defined, as St. Augustine understood, as well as confronted in our hearts, has come to be identified with the “death of the species,” while virtue comes to mean, substantially, “what we must ‘do’ merely to stay in existence,” yielding everything that we are to do so. These latter views, I think, are not classical or Christian ideas. Sometimes we have the feeling that the tradition of intellectual religious discipline is so far eroded that the advocates of this anti-war position hardly realize the significance of what they are doing. They show little sense of the direction of their argument. Thinking straight, of course, is not ever easy in any subject. Christian Scriptures, moreover, have warned us to be wary of the postures of the professors, the intellectuals, and even the clerics of any age. Yet, Christianity is likewise a religion directed precisely to intelligence. By believing the facts of revelation, we are, to hold them, required to “think” more accurately, more in conformity with what is.

The paradox was, I suspect, caught in an old Peanuts cartoon, which opened with Schroeder at the piano, with Lucy on her back, leaning on the piano, looking at the ceiling. Lucy began, “I am going to ask you a question, Schroeder, and I want a straight answer.” The next frame showed Schroeder continuing at the piano, with Lucy looking at him longingly. “Do you think you and I will get married someday?” Schroeder suddenly pounded the piano at this impertinent question, both fists in action, yelling to a startled Lucy, “Never!!! Never in ten thousand million years!” Schroeder, after this outburst, calmly went back to his playing Beethoven, while Lucy slumped over the piano, sighing, “I can’t stand those straight answers!” Revelation, I suppose, has something to do with our capacity to stand “straight answers,” however long we last, even unto ten thousand million billion years, even unto the forever which we are promised.

The “straight answer” is, then, that merely keeping our species alive on this earth for ten thousand million billion years, or however long we want to imagine it, at whatever cost, is not the heart of what Christianity teaches. Indeed, to talk as if it were could easily lead to a doctrine which permits the sacrifice of all value in the name of merely surviving for as long as possible. My contention is that what teaches religion what is to be recognized as a corrupt regime is political philosophy, which also teaches us what is most likely to happen when we seek to change regimes even less than the worst. This is, if you will, the service reason gives to revelation, the lack of which easily leads religion into not reality, but a sort of this-worldly utopianism, the legacy of much of the political philosophy of the modern era itself, as Strauss, among others, has shown us.

The politicization of religion, then, the identification of its primary tasks in economic or political terms, has created in practice the effective disappearance of religion at a precise time when the public philosophy of the West is most in need of an intelligence grounded in historical transcendence, which can justify a civil order of justice, freedom, and mercy, based on something other than personal preference or ideological options presupposed to nothing short of brute political power. All of this has happened, moreover, at a time when, within the enterprise of political philosophy itself, questions of the legitimate relation of revelation and politics are again being asked because of known impasses within both the practices of politics and the philosophical reflections on these impasses by those who wonder what, ultimately, they mean.

In the area of human life, for instance, an area which is in danger of disappearing from our political horizon because of intellectual confusion about the nature of the nuclear war issue, we are actually, as Professor William Brennan, in his powerful book Medical Holocausts, has shown, practicing many of those principles against which we fought World War II and in which, so we thought, we had rediscovered the order of natural law and human dignity both as the object of the state itself and as something ultimately not of our own making. Human life has come to mean, in effect, what the law says it means, the law presupposed to no higher end about what we are as such, in our being. In my understanding, the massive silence about the killing of our own unborn kind, the philosophy of much of the anti-nuclear movement, based on the premise that war is the worst evil, and the extreme social activism we now are accustomed to hear in many religious and ideological sectors, which equates “evil” with social or political “structures,” rather than personal acts, out of which regimes are formed, all have a common cause, the secularist thesis that man’s highest end lies in this world, when, he masters himself, for the good of the ongoing human “species” down the ages, as the center of social success, of humanism itself.

When Machiavelli in the sixteenth century suggested that we should “lower our sights” from what man ought to do, which he learned from both reason and revelation, to what he does “do,” he set the intellectual agenda in which we see ourselves involved. This agenda would replace the Judaeo-Christian revelation of a personal resurrection in a vision of the inner life of the triune God as the highest end of each created human person, beyond this life, with the on-going, collective, completely human and restructured “race.” The only meaning in this non-substantial entity would be a self-meaning, whose only permanence would be the keeping itself alive, at whatever cost, fashioning itself as it will. But in this process, it would carefully “remove” by intellectual, political, and technological means, any presumed sign of the divinity, particularly those signs having to do with the reproduction and abiding care of our kind, with any norms of a givenness to which we are oriented as humans.

Let me continue these reflections on Christian intelligence, then, with two brief accounts, one from The New Yorker, the other from Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. At the bottom of an obscure New Yorker column, of uncertain vintage, I once clipped out what was humorously called, “A Thought for the Week,” which was taken from the University of Western Ontario Gazette. This was the wording of the sage, “weekly” thought, surely good, I think, for almost any week: “Unless one has managed to live an amazingly puritanical life, it is safe to assume that everyone has buried deep within our (sic) minds and souls an incident of the past that involves ourselves.” Now, aside from the fact that I think we all, in one form or another, live quite “amazing” lives, puritanical or not, if only because we have them in the first place — human life, after all, is an unexpected metaphysical “wonder” — this all seems to be a sort of Canadian collegiate version of Descartes’ dictum “I think, therefore I am.” This is then all skillfully blended in with a sophomoric Calvinist’s notion of original sin and predestination. Yet, as Aquinas said, what lies buried deep within our minds and souls does account for what goes on in the outside world. This is the primary reason, in fact, why Aquinas thought that revelation just might be “necessary,” as he put it, wherein he really meant freely given by God, yet not unintelligible to our reason.

On Saturday, July 30, 1763, to return to the second instance, Dr. Johnson and James Boswell took a small “sculler” from Temple-Stairs Dock in London to Greenwich. During the pleasant trip, Boswell asked Johnson whether he thought we needed to know Latin and Greek for a good education. Johnson definitely thought that those who knew the classical languages had a considerable advantage over ordinary folk who did not. Johnson admitted next however, that in certain cases, such as the boy rowing them on the Thames, this chore could be done well enough without such classical learning, in which the boy rowing would also know “how Orpheus sang to the Argonauts.” “This boy rows as well as without learning,” Johnson remarked out loud, “as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.” Then, Johnson shouted to the boy, “What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?” “Sir, (said the boy), I would give what I have.” Samuel Johnson was so delighted with this response that he gave the lad a double fare. Then he continued to Boswell. “Sir, (said he), a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind, and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all he has to get knowledge.” What, in other words, are we also willing to give that we might have knowledge? And what is the structure of a polity that might allow and encourage us to do so, since not every political regime, after all, does? And is this knowledge we most search for, finally, merely political, merely about how we should live and recognize ourselves on this earth?

Knowledge, Aristotle taught us, is an individual human being’s way of becoming all things, the way the whole universe, which is not the same as the particular individual himself, becomes his, without his either changing into what he knows or himself fabricating, in the first place, what is, including ourselves. We should indeed give “all we have” to possess this knowledge, even though, even in, say, a university, knowledge is not, strictly speaking, what we “pay” for, but what we are freely given. Professors, even less clergy, do not give what is somehow properly “theirs,” as Josef Pieper pointed out in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture, but, if we are fortunate, they help us see, to grasp what is already given to all of us. Further, we should be prepared to receive our knowledge from wherever it comes, even from revelation, yet understanding that we need a criterion by which we can distinguish truth from error, for that is the function of our intelligence itself. Both political knowledge and religious knowledge are real knowledges addressed to the same persons, to ourselves. In fact, one of the most important aspects of precisely Christian revelation is its recognition that “political” knowledge is itself both necessary and worthy, but not itself directly the object of the revelation of the highest things themselves, to which, as both Aristotle and Aquinas remarked, we ought to devote ourselves as much as we can.

No “artificial barriers,” thus, separate politics and religion, except the walls of a theoretical bias or an unwillingness to “give all we have” to understand either the one or the other. Much of what we do not know, after all, aside from our talents and our all too brief individual lives in this world, will be the result of our own choosing not to know. This will involve not so much reality as itself knowable, but ourselves, our choices “buried deep in our minds and souls,” the chosen inclinations that prevent us from wanting to know all the truth there is to know, particularly the truth about the highest things, what John Paul II frequently calls “the whole truth about man.” Whether aberrations in action precede aberrations in the mind or vice versa, is a controverted topic, probably a bit of both, when we sort it all out. Aquinas said that we need moral virtues to see the truth, but he likewise said that a slight error in the beginning leads to huge errors in the end. Russell Kirk remarked recently that the recovery of the very concept of virtue is our most pressing political task, and yet, as Aquinas again said, our happiness does not wholly or essentially consist in moral virtue.

We live in a benign era which does not want to “condemn” anyone unless he be guilty of a political crime or “social sin,” itself defined largely by popular tastes and ideologies. “Sincerity,” as I have suggested elsewhere (in my Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men), is the “most dangerous of the virtues,” the one attitude that covers the greatest multitude of sins. One way to save everyone, of course, is to hold that, after all, nothing that anyone does makes any ultimate difference. We free ourselves from guilt by freeing ourselves from lives that can produce significant actions with final consequences. This is the most liberal of the liberalisms and the most open of openness. But the cost is rather high, for it is logically the denial that precisely “human beings” are themselves possible. The first step in denying God, it turns out, is the one which begins by denying that human beings can act, can do something which really makes any difference ultimately. Creatures, whose very existence in their actions is risk, are, on this basis of a misplaced mercy or compassion, said to be impossible. In defending the “possibility” of our kind’s very being, we need to begin with what man is. Many, to save their peculiar theories about God and man, end up deciding that the sort of beings we really are, in the end, ought not to be. The social and biological sciences are filled with this sort.

In one of Ogden Nash’s poems entitled, again with Jesuit overtones to James Joyce in Ireland, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” we read:

No, you never get any fun

Out of the things you haven’t done,

But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,

Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.

The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,

Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

Nash, like all humorists, in some mysterious way, understands well the difference between being and not being, between the possibility of our existing as funny and the possibility of our not existing at all.

Another way to save everyone, another way to claim that nothing ultimately matters, is to claim for ourselves divine powers, to universalize by our own authority Christ’s dictum on the Cross, namely, to forgive everyone automatically or legally, for no one knows what he does anyhow. To be sure, there is a sense in which “knowing not what we do” is always true of what we do if we knew the full ramifications of our acts. We do not know the reaches of all our thoughts or especially deeds, nor indeed the total consequences of any one of them, which goes on so long as there are human beings acting, even to the end of mankind, as Hannah Arendt understood. The point is, however, to know what we do, to know what we are about. This is an essential aspect of what we are and ought to be. Our own intelligence is not totally incapable, not totally corrupt or devilishly deceived, as a Luther or a Descartes seemed sometimes to have held. And what we ought to be is the real good of what it is to be human, to be in existence in the unique human way we are. Politics does not make man to be man, Aristotle said, but taking him from nature as already man, enables him to be “good” man.

Christian revelation was given to us, no doubt, because we needed forgiveness for those disordered acts of ours, which proceed from our thoughts and wills, which go on down the ages in spite of ourselves. But revelation was also given to us that we might think and act aright. And if we think and act correctly, no matter how it comes about that we do so, the regime we live in will be better in itself, even if it is not a good regime as such. The virtues and the vices of citizens are not necessarily coterminous with the worthiness or corruption of a particular regime. As a matter of principle, we must never so identify the human person with his politics that nothing is left over which properly belongs to him. Yet, in a sense, if we did not already know what it is to “think aright,” we would have no criterion to know whether revelation was a fact or not. Nor could we distinguish true from false revelation, theophanies that just “happen,” from revelations which follow a definite order. This latter problem, it seems to me, is the only caveat I have with Professor Dante Germino’s brilliant new book on Political Philosophy and the Open Society, a problem Professor Fredrich Wilhelmsen, in his Christianity and Political Philosophy, likewise found in Professor Eric Voegelin, whom Germino follows on this point.

The issue, I think, is a fundamental one. But it is one largely and correctly confronted in Professor Ralph Mclnerny’s book St. Thomas Aquinas, when he discusses why some of the things which are “revealed” are also things that can be known by our “reason.” That is to say, if at least some of the things that are revealed are also things which we ought, in our leisure, to figure out for ourselves, preferably when we are young, as Socrates seemed to hint to the enthusiastic young listeners to his dialogues, whose very listening became the cause of his own being accused of corrupting the order of the polis, then we can perhaps avoid that disastrous dichotomy which implies that if we have faith, we cannot have reason, or if we have reason, we cannot also have faith — a problem, apparently, with Lezek Kolokowski’s new book Religion.

But the peculiarly “Catholic” thesis, often evidently given up in so many Catholic universities themselves, is that faith is primarily not antagonistic to but a guide to “right reason,” to “more” reason. The real crisis of the faith, therefore, lies in those tendencies which maintain either that our reason must justify whatever people “do” within the polity or that what faith teaches cannot be also philosophically “true” in any sense because it is faith that causes us to think in the first place. This issue seems to be the problem with Professor Strauss himself. Since, however, many Catholic intellectuals themselves announce that they hold one or the other of these positions, we can hardly be surprised that this central, classical position is not taken seriously. Yet, in some sense, classic Christian intelligence needs to be allowed in political regimes, even for them to grasp fully what political regimes are in the first place.

Both Socrates and Christ were executed by perhaps the best states of their time, by a formal trial within their respective legal systems. The account of the death of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues along with the account of the Crucifixion of Christ in the Gospels — the latter as infrequently studied by students in our universities as the former is at least universally recommended — each in his own way brings up the question of the relationship of the good man, even the God-man, to the public order. Pilate, the governor in charge of Roman justice, the best of its kind, said that he found no guilt in Christ, Yet, he finally permitted his execution. He did not call out his troops to prevent it.

Socrates, for his part, understood that he must live as a private citizen in Athens even if he were to survive for a little time. He knew that he could have gone to live elsewhere, to Thebes or Sparta, but he suspected, if he began to ask the same philosophical questions in a new location, which he must do if he were to be himself, Socrates, the philosopher, he would have suffered the same fate as in Athens. So the question arises, as it did certainly for the young Plato, of whether it was possible to construct some sort of state, at least in the mind, which would not execute its Socrates, its philosopher. Professor Alan Bloom argues that this heady exercise was intended as a warning, to present for us the terrible form of pure justice, so that we can be content with what is possible. Likewise, as Christian novelists have liked to recount, was the Crucifixion of Christ merely an accident of the quirks of the Roman legal system, or the weakness of a Pilate or a Caiphas? Christian theology has said that we are all guilty, but not politically guilty.

Must we first, in other words, be political philosophers, however reluctantly, before we can be either philosophical or religious? Plato himself in a remarkably disturbing passage early in The Republic, thus, had Socrates ask one of the young men, what was the common view about what would happen to a good man who appeared in any existing state? The young man answered that he would be persecuted, beaten, gouged, and eventually executed, some translations even say crucified. No wonder the early Christians wondered about this Plato, and the wonder, I think, has not abated much in the meantime. Augustine merely said that Plato was right to seek the perfect kingdom; he was only wrong in hinting that it could be located in this world or only in the mind.

All existing civil orders, in other words, have their “myths,” their official explanations of themselves, of what their order of justice is, of how they came to be the way they are, of whether they are able to permit any openness to what is not their regime. Indeed, all existing states can be “classified” by the differing ways in which these self-explanations are reported. Just as the poet, the politician, and the craftsman — normal, decent men, perhaps — conspired to kill Socrates, because he questioned the city’s conception of itself relative to the truth, so other poets, politicians, and craftsmen would be found in the drama of the death of Christ or any other merely “good” man. Thus, there seems to be some sort of conflict between the pursuit of politics and the pursuit of truth, both of which pursuits, as Aristotle said, are natural to man. Catholic intelligence, at its particular best, has addressed itself to this conflict from the theoretical background of locating the final source of truth outside of “politics” as such, though not denying politics’ own validity, while, at the same time, locating politics in the relations of human persons acting with others. For both of these, we should give “what we have.” The “straight answer” is that a religion of “acts and facts,” “the most materialistic religion in history,” is the reconciliation of philosophy, politics, and revelation.

Art Buchwald once wrote an essay entitled, “Is the Four-Letter Word Obsolete?” His thesis was that the classical “four-letter” word had a very useful social purpose. It really let us know when someone was angry or annoyed or otherwise provoked. Nor did the Commandments recommend that we use such words. But, according to Mr. Buchwald, in recent years, we went right ahead and used them anyhow, so much so that these very tension-provoking, four-letter words became utterly useless as a means of cussing someone out, with good cause. So we began to forbid other words, not merely ones referring to how we beget, but political ones. Buchwald’s solution, naturally, was to re-invent, on experimental grounds, the very Commandment forbidding cussing and such things as “hell” and “damn.”

“Obscenity can no longer be counted on as a trigger word, and I think this is blanking up the whole English language.”

“What can be done about it?”

“Those of us who are interested in the problem are starting a campaign to preserve our four-letter words. We think they should be declared a national heritage and be used as a last resort only in anger and when people can no longer reason together.”

I hope that it will not seem overly odd if I suggest that this existential principle, implicit in Art Buchwald, is the direction Christian intelligence must take. That is, we must begin to see the intellectual disorder in the very acts we have posited, as Alasdair Maclntyre explained in his After Virtue, in those acts we have willed into existence based on nothing more than our own projected ideas grounded in little else but what we want.

In a way, then, in conclusion, we apparently need something like faith even to see what we are doing politically. And yet, we often need political philosophy to decide that our faith is credible, and if so, whether we will allow it to exist in our regimes. So let us preserve the “hells” and the “damns,” for there is no fun in the things we haven’t done. Let us be open to the “straight answers” and give “what we have” to receive them. Christianity is the most materialistic religion in history because it has been told of a “Baby born in Bethlehem, a body nailed to a cross.” On this basis, it began to think, and in thinking, it has come to know about politics, about the death of Socrates and of Christ. “A natural desire for knowledge” is the normal feeling of mankind, each of whose members, whether prematurely old men or not, artists, poets, or craftsmen, present at the deaths of Socrates and of Christ, shared in an act from which he cannot escape except through solid things like fonts and altars. The vocation of religious intelligence to political philosophy thus remains the teaching about the highest things, even amidst those physical things, including ourselves, that make us the risks that we are. But ordinary politics can save the intellectuals, lay and clerical, from the corruption of a man-made ideal, not fit for this world or the next. Though political philosophy and Christian intelligence can in some sense exist without each other, still, in the end, each better knows what it is, lives what it is, with the other.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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