Pierre Manent’s illiberal republic

At First Things, Pierre Manent has a lengthy, provocative essay, which begins:

We French have for some years been overcome by a furor for republicanism and for citizenship. There is no activity so humble that it cannot take on an intimidating nobility as soon as it is associated with citizenship. The republic calls us, besieges us, smothers us—but where is the republic? Are we part of a republic, or does our intemperate usage of the term mean only that we have forgotten its meaning?

I raise these questions in a nonpartisan, non-polemical way. I do not mean: Our republic is no longer republican enough; we must try harder! I mean: This collective body that we make up together, is it still legitimate to call it a republic? This question can only be raised seriously if we suspend our participation in the current political debate and strive to grasp “republic” as a discernable and shareable object of thought and subject of action.

(Emphasis supplied.) While Manent is better situated than we are to diagnose a French furor for republicanism and citizenship, he would not be wrong to say that, even in the United States, “there is no activity so humble that it cannot take on an intimidating nobility as soon as it is associated with citizenship.” Indeed, he would not be wrong to say that about nearly any liberal democracy. But as we work through Manent’s argument, it becomes clear that his vision of the republic is fundamentally illiberal. Indeed, it seems to be a rejection of the liberal-democratic regime altogether. To an illiberal Catholic of an integralist bent—as we shall soon see—Manent’s arguments (at least as we understand them) are not especially novel. But they do point out the basic problem with liberal western democracy: the rejection of the common good.

Pushing his initial question—where is the republic? are we part of a republic?—Manent writes:

What, then, is the basis of republican government? We hardly ever pose this question; or rather we answer it in a hasty way. We say in effect: The basis of republican government is in principle the pursuit of the general interest. But, unfortunately, in practice particular interests usually prevail. Equipped with this important information, we citizens are full of admiration for our good intentions and pitilessly severe towards the politicians who of course betray them. How might we avoid this mix of moralism and skepticism that makes us both idle and querulous citizens?

For once we must think not of ourselves but of those who govern us. What is the basis of their action? We must not by any means ask them, since they will repeat the platitudes called for by the representative system. Whom to ask, then? The advantage of the non-representative republic, especially the Roman Republic, is that it makes available to us the spirit and motives of republican government, which are more visible because they are not veiled or distorted by the enormous artifice of representation. Without necessarily following Montaigne in “taking up the fight” for Pompey or Brutus, we would thus be well-advised to interrogate the Romans.

(Emphasis supplied.) We take Manent to mean by “general interest” the “common good.” (He says as much later in the article.) But the pursuit of the general interest—the pursuit of the common good—is the basis for all government. Indeed, we contend that this is an ordinance of the natural law. In other words, Manent’s definition of “republican government” is simply the definition of “government.” Manent trades in a tautology: the definition of government is government. And because this is the case, as we’ll see here in a couple minutes, we very quickly depart from the liberal-democratic ideal of the republic. That is, we get away from a broadly representative democracy with a generous franchise and a separation of powers.

Before exploring Manent’s point, we must raise, if not a classicist’s objection, then an antiquarian’s objection. Manent goes on to “interrogate the Romans” through Shakespeare, arguing that,

Shakespeare’s Roman plays follow faithfully Plutarch’s Lives. A historian and philosopher, Plutarch was admired by Montaigne and Rousseau for his acute judgment of human actions and for his skill in revealing the bases of these actions. The drama of the theater adds to these qualities, for it is all about action, and there all speech serves action or is bound up with it, thus bringing to the surface, by its very form, the springs of human endeavor. Shakespeare’s Roman plays thus make available to us not, of course, a historical document, but an interrogation or inquiry into the motives of the actors of the Roman Republic, the regime that left the deepest mark on the history of Europe and of the West.

On one hand, it seems to us that this is a reasonable approach. Certainly generations have looked to Rome or Shakespeare or both of them for insight on human nature and government. On the other hand, there is rather a lot of mediation here. We interrogate the Romans by interrogating Shakespeare who interrogated Plutarch who interrogated the actors of the Roman Republic. There are, of course, other sources available to us, including some of the key players of the Roman Republic, like Caesar and Cicero, to say nothing of other observers like Horace and Catullus. We have, also, authors who wrote in the wake of the collapse of the Republic and the early decades of the empire, like Seneca and Tacitus. All of these authors had the austere virtues of the Roman Republic in mind and the balance of these virtues with the paroxysms shaking Rome at the time. Consider, for example, Horace’s Carmina II.15:

Iam pauca aratro iugera regiae
moles relinquent, undique latius
extenta visentur Lucrino
stagna lacu, platanusque caelebs

evincet ulmos; tum violaria et
myrtus et omnis copia narium
spargent olivetis odorem
fertilibus domino priori,

tum spissa ramis laurea fervidos
excludet ictus. Non ita Romuli
praescriptum et intonsi Catonis
auspiciis veterumque norma.

Privatus illis census erat brevis,
commune magnum: nulla decempedis
metata privatis opacam
porticus excipiebat Arcton,

nec fortuitum spernere caespitem
leges sinebant, oppida publico
sumptu iubentes et deorum
templa novo decorare saxo.

(Our poetic sense is not so good as to provide an excellent English rendering of this poem, which many of our readers likely read in a high school or college Latin class. Certainly Horace has been translated.) One might well find in Horace’s poem echoes of the discourse of any number of American or European conservatives. While it is true that Plutarch or Plutarch-through-Shakespeare might dramatize “motives of the actors of the Roman Republic,” it is no less true that these actors or their coevals themselves left a record of, if not their personal motives (though Cicero, for example, certainly did that), then the ideals they wished they were motivated by. Yet Manent sets out to explore the Roman ideals mediated through Plutarch and Shakespeare.

Can Plutarch and Shakespeare really be better sources on the Roman Republic than M. Tullius Cicero, one of the last great defenders of the Republic in its final years? Or Q. Horatius Flaccus, one of Brutus’s soldiers at Philippi and then a poet in the circle of Augustus and Maecenas? This is to say (elaborately) that we suspect that Manent takes Plutarch-through-Shakespeare in part because Montaigne and Rousseau recommended Plutarch and everyone recommends Shakespeare. In other words, we are given the Enlightenment-approved commentator on the Roman Republic mediated through an Elizabethan dramatist of unusual talent. We think Manent is playing a game with us here. Plutarch and Shakespeare are cornerstones of Enlightenment, liberal thought. However, as we have said, we will see that Manent comes to some conclusions entirely at odds with the liberal-democratic regime. One might expect someone quoting lengthy passages from Cicero and Horace to be an illiberal, but someone quoting Shakespeare? Never! Perish the thought! How could someone derive something so wicked from that most humane dramatist?

Back to Manent, though.

Recall that Manent defines republican government as government generally (at least as Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII would all define government). At first, this seems to present a problem for Manent’s argument, not least because he uses terms like republic, which have specific content in this age. But Manent’s argument, upon closer inspection, is really not about the republican form of government at all. Instead, Manent wants to make a point about true politics in the age of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, because Manent uses the language of liberal democracy, he cannot make his point as easily or as directly as someone who is not bound to that language. It would be, to put it another way, much easier for a Thomist, especially one familiar with De Koninck and Grenier, to make Manent’s argument directly and fairly simply.

Let’s work through the problem a little bit, to see what we mean. First of all, Manent cannot mean a republic in the sense that most liberals mean. That is, he cannot mean a representative democracy with a broad franchise and separation of powers. His definition of republican government—the pursuit of the common good—is wholly incompatible with that liberal concept of a republic. Such a statement, we acknowledge, may take some careful justification. Consider first what St. Thomas Aquinas says in the De Regno (c. 1):

Si ergo naturale est homini quod in societate multorum vivat, necesse est in hominibus esse per quod multitudo regatur. Multis enim existentibus hominibus et unoquoque id, quod est sibi congruum, providente, multitudo in diversa dispergeretur, nisi etiam esset aliquis de eo quod ad bonum multitudinis pertinet curam habens; sicut et corpus hominis et cuiuslibet animalis deflueret, nisi esset aliqua vis regitiva communis in corpore, quae ad bonum commune omnium membrorum intenderet. Quod considerans Salomon dicit: ubi non est gubernator, dissipabitur populus.

In Phelan’s translation, as revised by Fr. Eschmann (while we have not the poetic sense to translate Horace, we do have just enough Latin to judge that this translation is good enough, in addition to its other charms), this is rendered:

If, then, it is natural for man to live in the society of many, it is necessary that there exist among men some means by which the group may be governed. For where there are many men together and each one is looking after his own interest, the multitude would be broken up and scattered unless there were also an agency to take care of what appertains to the commonweal. In like manner, the body of a man or any other animal would disintegrate unless there were a general ruling force within the body which watches over the common good of all members. With this in mind, Solomon says [Eccl. 4:9]: “Where there is no governor, the people shall fall.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Recall that we know from Aristotle and Thomas that, man being a political animal, it is natural for man to live in society. And since there must be some sort of government in society—otherwise the society would fall apart—we may say that it is natural for there to be government. In nature, Aristotle reminds us at the beginning of the Politics, there are rulers and ruled. This government, if it be true government and not tyranny, must be aimed at the common good (De Regno c. 3):

Contingit autem in quibusdam, quae ordinantur ad finem, et recte, et non recte procedere. Quare et in regimine multitudinis et rectum, et non rectum invenitur. Recte autem dirigitur unumquodque quando ad finem convenientem deducitur; non recte autem quando ad finem non convenientem. Alius autem est finis conveniens multitudini liberorum, et servorum. Nam liber est, qui sui causa est; servus autem est, qui id quod est, alterius est. Si igitur liberorum multitudo a regente ad bonum commune multitudinis ordinetur, erit regimen rectum et iustum, quale convenit liberis. Si vero non ad bonum commune multitudinis, sed ad bonum privatum regentis regimen ordinetur, erit regimen iniustum atque perversum, unde et dominus talibus rectoribus comminatur per Ezech. XXXIV, 2, dicens: vae pastoribus qui pascebant semetipsos (quasi sua propria commoda quaerentes): nonne greges a pastoribus pascuntur? Bonum siquidem gregis pastores quaerere debent, et rectores quilibet bonum multitudinis sibi subiectae.

Again Phelan and Eschmann:

Now it happens in certain things which are, ordained towards an end that one may proceed in a right way and also in a wrong way. So, too, in the government of a multitude there is a distinction between right and wrong. A thing is rightly directed when it is led towards a befitting end; wrongly when it is led towards an unbefitting end. Now the end which befits a multitude of free men is different from that which befits a multitude of slaves, for the free man is one who exists for his own sake, while the slave, as such, exists for the sake of another. If, therefore, a multitude of free men is ordered by the ruler towards the common good of the multitude, that rulership will be right and just, as is suitable to free men. If, on the other hand, a rulership aims, not at the common good of the multitude, but at the private good of the ruler, it will be an unjust and perverted rulership. The Lord, therefore, threatens such rulers, saying by the mouth of Ezekiel: “Woe to the shepherds that feed themselves (seeking, that is, their own interest) : should not the flocks be fed by the shepherd?” Shepherds indeed should seek the good of their flocks, and every ruler, the good of the multitude subject to him.

None of this is especially complicated from the perspective of a Thomist. (We will see more of this in a moment.) But to summarize: it is natural for men to live in society, and in order to live in society, there must be a ruler. The ruler must order the society to the common good. (Aquinas repeats that the unity of peace is the temporal common good.) If the ruler does not order society to the common good—if, in other words, the ruler pursues its own private good—it will be “an unjust and perverted rulership.” He will be a tyrant. Government, therefore, supposes rule ordered to the common good.

Aquinas goes on to argue that that rule by one is best, insofar as it accords best with nature, to say nothing of God’s rule over the entire universe. In nature, we see all sorts of corporate entities ruled by one. The body is ruled by the heart and the soul by reason. Even the beehive is ruled by one bee, Aquinas observes. Thus, rule by one accords with nature. By the same token, Aquinas contends that rule by many is inherently unstable, and incapable of guiding the state in the unity of peace. Now, it becomes more stable as the many becomes fewer, but one is still better than a more united few. Following Aquinas’s argument, then, we see that he holds that a monarchy is best able to preserve the unity of peace—that is, the temporal common good—which is the end of government, a natural component of society. As the number of people with a share in the government increases, the ability of the government to rule according to the common good is diminished. In consequence, one could very easily say that a monarchy is the form of government required by nature.

One would be, well, not quite right to say that nature requires a monarchy, however. The recent magisterium—recalling the divine mandate to the Church to interpret and defend the natural law—makes clear that the options are broader than monarchy. Leo XIII in Diuturnum illud observed that,

There is no question here respecting forms of government, for there is no reason why the Church should not approve of the chief power being held by one man or by more, provided only it be just, and that it tend to the common advantage. Wherefore, so long as justice be respected, the people are not hindered from choosing for themselves that form of government which suits best either their own disposition, or the institutions and customs of their ancestors.

(Emphasis supplied.) And in Immortale Dei, he returned to the point, stating that:

The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State. For, in things visible God has fashioned secondary causes, in which His divine action can in some wise be discerned, leading up to the end to which the course of the world is ever tending. In like manner, in civil society, God has always willed that there should be a ruling authority, and that they who are invested with it should reflect the divine power and providence in some measure over the human race.

They, therefore, who rule should rule with evenhanded justice, not as masters, but rather as fathers, for the rule of God over man is most just, and is tempered always with a father’s kindness. Government should, moreover, be administered for the well-being of the citizens, because they who govern others possess authority solely for the welfare of the State. Furthermore, the civil power must not be subservient to the advantage of any one individual or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all. But, if those who are in authority rule unjustly, if they govern overbearingly or arrogantly, and if their measures prove hurtful to the people, they must remember that the Almighty will one day bring them to account, the more strictly in proportion to the sacredness of their office and preeminence of their dignity. “The mighty shall be mightily tormented.” Then, truly, will the majesty of the law meet with the dutiful and willing homage of the people, when they are convinced that their rulers hold authority from God, and feel that it is a matter of justice and duty to obey them, and to show them reverence and fealty, united to a love not unlike that which children show their parents. “Let every soul be subject to higher powers.” To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes willfully to destruction. “He that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation.” To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is to say, therefore, that while a monarchy may be the best form of government (and tyranny the worst), it is by no means the form of government required by nature. What is required by nature, however, is that governments rule with even-handed justice, working for the common good and the well-being of the citizens. One may say, therefore, that a monarchy is the form of government favored by nature, even if the strict requirement of nature is that the form of government, whatever it is, be just and serve the common good. There is, therefore, no conflict between Leo and Thomas (on this point).

This is all sort of basic, Thomistic thinking on government. But with this thinking in mind, one easily sees that Manent simply cannot have the liberal-democratic ideal of the republic in mind. Indeed, starting from Manent’s basic definition, one arrives easily at monarchy, not the liberal-democratic state. Manent is not attempting to construct a justification for the liberal-democratic state. Perhaps the use of “republic” is the problem. Perhaps Manent would have been better off to say “government rightly conceived,” but this would set off all sorts of alarms, just as quoting Cicero and Horace at great length would set off alarms. For example, Manent’s republic is ruled by the few, not the many. This is, of course, an excellent trick; Manent observes that in France (and the United States and elsewhere) there is a mania for republicanism and citizenship. Yet, taking the basic building block of the republic at face value, one arrives very quickly at a very different model for government. As we said, Manent’s conclusions are fundamentally illiberal. But, because he discusses these matters obliquely and through the mediated content of Plutarch-through-Shakespeare, his illiberal state is not as distinct and the illiberal republic a Laval Thomist would sketch.

But make no mistake: Manent is talking about an illiberal state. One may confirm this suspicion, if it remains a suspicion, when Manent writes:

The republic is the regime that allows and encourages the most action. This can be seen in Rome, and we see it in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a “republic disguised under the form of monarchy,” as Montesquieu put it. We see it in America’s founding, an extraordinary founding, and we see it in France in the great movement of ’89, especially if this movement is understood to include, as it ought, the adventure of the empire.

Today we expect from a republic the opposite of a republic. We demand from it the least possible action, or what we call “freedom.” For us, freedom is a world without commandment or obedience. It is a world in which public action can neither begin nor commend anything. In practice, as I have noted, we ask our representatives and those who govern us to show their disinterestedness in defending our interests. In this we give evidence of a very naive immorality, especially insofar as we use a moralizing language that prevents us from grasping the moral bases of a truly republican regime. Service to the republic cannot be disinterested, because it is paid for by what is most precious in the eyes of ambitious citizens, that is, the honors granted by the republic, which boil down to public esteem. It is not disinterestedness that we should be asking of those who govern us, but rather ambition. It has been too long since we had the rare benefit of being governed by a truly ambitious statesman. The conviction has taken hold that our regime would be more republican if it ignored political rule still more. Political leaders are to serve our interests rather than commend our collective actions. The reigning social philosophy postulates the power and self-sufficiency of a spontaneous social form that would bring together order and freedom without the mediation of political rule. This is to abandon society to its inertia, that is, its corruption. Thus places and states of toxic stagnation have formed, spreading and producing cysts on the social body over the last ten, twenty, or thirty years; these places have never known the presence of political rule.

(Emphasis supplied.) We admit that Manent’s talk of action is a little opaque. But it seems to us that by action he means something in the nature of “rule.” His brief enthusiasm for “the adventure of empire” suggests something broader than mere rule, though one must remember empire may be said in many ways. Recall, for example, Benedict’s enthusiasm in Caritas in veritate (no. 67) for supranational government:

One also senses the urgent need to find innovative ways of implementing the principle of the responsibility to protect, and of giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making. This seems necessary in order to arrive at a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth. Furthermore, such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights.

(Footnotes and formatting omitted.) In other words, one may find, if one is so inclined, a connection between rule ordered to the common good and Manent’s “adventure of empire,” and one can find both in “action.” However, action as Manent means it is almost the essence of illiberal rule.

In essence, Manent wants a lawgiver in the Thomistic sense. He wants someone who will hand down ordinances of practical reason shaped to the common good (ST Ia IIae q.90 a.1 ad 2; a.2 co.; a.3 co.). He wants someone to, as Thomas says in the De Regno, provide a general ruling force to keep the state together. And the purpose of law is to make men simply good (ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1). All of this presupposes, as we have said on previous occasions, subordination to the common good (e.g., ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 ad 3; q.92 a.1 ad 3). This is squarely at odds with Manent’s diagnosis of the modern concept of freedom as “a world without commandment or obedience.” This is, as Fr. Grenier would say, liberalism in its fully developed state: something akin to radical individualism. In other words, Manent recognizes what any Catholic who thinks with the tradition of Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII knows; liberalism is simply incompatible with good government. Good government requires the ruler—ideally, but not necessarily, a unitary ruler—to order society to the common good. This requires virtuous rulers and virtuous subjects, all of whom understand their place in this order. Modern liberalism, demanding that the ruler serve everyone’s individual interests one way and another, cannot be squared with this vision of the well-ordered state.

Manent diagnoses the consequences of liberalism well: the political form of the state breaks down. Yet Manent also recognizes that man, being a political animal, destined by nature to live in society, knows that something is wrong with the modern state. The paralysis of government, the increasingly nonexistent choice among leadership candidates, and the sense that ever larger numbers of people are being left out of peace and prosperity are all signs that something is not right. Manent suggests that into this situation various candidates have come, offering solutions in the form, on the one hand, of the European Union and, on the other, of nationalism. (The same can be said of the United States.) What he does not observe explicitly is that no one is offering a return to rule rightly conceived. No one is promising to order the state to virtue and the common good. The promises are always that this or that private good (or aggregate of private goods) will be preferred to some other private good. England over Brussels. Europe over England. The United States over Mexico. This group of citizens over that group of citizens or non-citizens. So on and so forth. Perhaps, however, this is what he means when he talks about the tragedy of the republic. Yet he’d be better to say this is the tragedy of liberalism. The promise of freedom ultimately results in the failure of politics rightly conceived.

A quick update on the new book on Luther

We hope you, dear reader, and yours are having a blessed and profitable Triduum. We had not intended to post anything during this time; however, a friend of Semiduplex has informed us that the full table of contents to the Roman Forum’s collection of essays on Luther is available in the preview at Amazon.com.* The list of titles looks fascinating.

*We want to emphasize that we are not an Amazon Associate or affiliate or whatever. We are not pointing you to Amazon because we get money for it. Just to be crystal clear.

More on the triumph of the Cross

About this time last year, we wrote about Venantius Fortunatus’s glorious Passiontide hymn, Pange lingua gloriosi, in the context of a post by Fr. John Hunwicke. Fr. Hunwicke is, we are happy to report, at it again. Last year, he wrote at length about Venantius’s meter, observing that trochaic tetrameter catalectic was the meter of the bawdy songs sung at Roman triumphs. This year, he adds a few observations that are very provocative if you ponder them for a while:

Triumphant, yes, but before that word Venantius uses another: a Greek word, tropaion. This refers to what you did after winning a glorious battle: first you found a tree; then you lopped its branches off; and you clad it with armour stripped from your defeated foes. Clever of Venantius, to see the Cross as a Victory Tree, and neat to think of the diabolical powers as stripped naked in defeat. Next we have a Latin word, Triumph, which refers to the boisterous procession into Rome after a victory: the Triumphator, his face painted red so that he looked like Juppiter, processed in his chariot with his legions following and singing. By the chariot wheels marched the leaders of the defeated enemy; they were facing a decisive end in a dark little cellar on the Capitoline Hill (you’ll remember that Cleopatra didn’t look forward to making her last public appearance in such a way). And what the soldiers chanted was the Triumphant Lay: io triumphe io triumphe. Venantius neatly suggests that we Christans have our own Triumphant Lay: immolatus vicerit; The Sacrificial Victim has won the day. An oxymoron: sacrificial victims usually ended up dead rather than in glory. Or you could call it a paradox; G K Chesterton rightly observed that it’s not easy to be a Christian if you can’t take paradox.

(Emphasis supplied and italics in original.) These three points are well worth meditating upon as we progress toward Good Friday. For our part, we observe that the canticle in the traditional Roman Breviary for Friday Lauds in the second place—said all through Lent and Passiontide—is the Canticle of Habacuc (3:2–19), which begins in Jerome’s Latin, Domine, audivi auditionem tuam. This is, as you may know, a canticle setting forth the terrifying glory of the Lord coming forth for the salvation of His people.

“A certain mediocrity, superficiality, and banality”

Yesterday, the Holy Father addressed a conference at the Vatican commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Instruction on Music in the Liturgy of the Sacred Congregation for Rites, Musicam sacram. While not as detailed as St. John Paul’s 2003 chirograph commemorating the 100th anniversary of St. Pius X’s great Tra le sollicitudini, it is still an interesting statement. Especially interesting is the Holy Father’s candid admission that:

Certamente l’incontro con la modernità e l’introduzione delle lingue parlate nella Liturgia ha sollecitato tanti problemi: di linguaggi, di forme e di generi musicali. Talvolta è prevalsa una certa mediocrità, superficialità e banalità, a scapito della bellezza e intensità delle celebrazioni liturgiche. Per questo i vari protagonisti di questo ambito, musicisti e compositori, direttori e coristi di scholae cantorum, animatori della liturgia, possono dare un prezioso contributo al rinnovamento, soprattutto qualitativo, della musica sacra e del canto liturgico. Per favorire questo percorso, occorre promuovere un’adeguata formazione musicale, anche in quanti si preparano a diventare sacerdoti, nel dialogo con le correnti musicali del nostro tempo, con le istanze delle diverse aree culturali, e in atteggiamento ecumenico.

(Emphasis supplied.) We will leave it to you, dear reader, to obtain a machine translation of the text, unless you have better Italian than we do. (And almost anyone does.)

De Koninck and the modern age

At Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has a very interesting comment by Jacques Maritain about Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good (1943). Most followers of De Koninck know that Fr. I. Thomas Eschmann, O.P., wrote a scathing critique of The Primacy of the Common Good, called In Defense of Jacques Maritain. Eschmann’s defense was published in 1945. De Koninck responded in 1945, with a very lengthy tract, In Defense of St. Thomas. Pater Waldstein notes that, in a 1945 letter to Étienne Gilson, another eminent Thomist, Maritain largely approved Eschmann’s critique. It is not clear whether Maritain had seen In Defense of St. Thomas when he wrote to Gilson. This may clarify somewhat Maritain’s position in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann, which remains a little shadowy.

Then again, it might not. Another sharp friend of ours pointed us to a chapter from Ralph McInerny’s 1988 collection of essays on Maritain, Art and Prudence, in which Maritain, writing in 1947, thanks Eschmann for his defense, but ultimately claims not to hold the positions criticized in The Primacy of the Common Good. McInerny also discusses a list of theses set forth by Yves Simon that purports to mark out the common ground between De Koninck, Maritain, and Simon. The letter Pater Waldstein cites helps form an interesting perspective on Maritain’s response to De Koninck. On the one hand, Maritain rejected the suggestion that he actually held the positions at issue in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann. On the other hand, Maritain certainly approved on Eschmann’s response to De Koninck and thought it wrought by the master hand, so to speak.

At any rate, we encourage you, dear reader, to read The Primacy of the Common Good, if you have not, and, if you have an appetite for controversy, In Defense of Jacques Maritain and In Defense of St. Thomas. Volume two of McInerny’s edition of The Writings of Charles De Koninck contains not only The Primacy of the Common Good, but also Eschmann’s response and De Koninck’s reply. (It also has De Koninck’s fascinating Ego Sapientia, which discusses the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament as applied to Our Lady, and his brief Notes on Marxism.) Pater Waldstein admirably summarizes the importance of De Koninck’s work, especially as conceived in opposition to “Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and . . . Neo-Pelagianism,” as Maritain puts it.


For a Catholic—indeed, for anyone operating in the western tradition—man is a political animal (Politics I.2, 1253a2–3; ST I-II q.72 a.4 co.). And, from this fact, as McInerny argues, man belongs to his community. To say otherwise is strange and results in strange, usually bad, consequences (Politics I.2, 1253a19–39.) Concern for the common good is, therefore, both inescapable and necessary. Yet much of the modern project—we would say “political project,” but to do so would be to equivocate on the nature of politics—is an attempt to escape concern for the common good. De Koninck discusses any number of errors about the common good—the most pernicious of which is, of course, totalitarianism—and you can, dear reader, see these errors propounded in any number of venues.

As Pater Waldstein observes, De Koninck’s critique of personalism has the note of prophecy about it. It is essential, therefore, to return to authors like De Koninck when contemplating the state of things and the possibility of a way forward. But, as we have said before, the state of theological and philosophical education among Catholics is shocking. Not only have we lost the recent social magisterium of popes like Leo XIII but we have also lost the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. The reaction of the Council and the post-conciliar Church against neo-Scholasticism and “manualism” has gone beyond blotting out the baroque neo-Thomism that so terrorized the Council fathers when they were in seminary to blotting out Thomism itself. And it shows: Catholics are entirely unprepared to grapple with the problems of modernity, including neoliberalism and neo-individualism. They fall into various errors, as a result, some of which are, to our mind, much worse than the problems confronted.

We observe, perhaps idly, that most of these errors seem to find their roots in imperfect understandings of the common good. Funny how that works.


Leonine radicalism and ressourcement


It is high time for Catholics to rediscover the magisterium of Leo XIII. There is a sense, we think, that the modern, liberal order is at a point of inflection, if not a point of crisis, and the cleverer among us are beginning to think about “what’s next.” Likewise, Leo’s pontificate, beginning in 1878 and continuing to 1903, took place during a similar moment of crisis—essentially between the revolutions of 1848 and 1870 and the First World War. And in this atmosphere, Leo taught often and at great length about the rightly ordered civil state, correct relations between the Church and states, and the duties of Christians in civil society. His lessons, however, have been forgotten, particularly as the Church itself has acceded, perhaps merely as a prudential decision, to the postwar liberal order.

Leo has not been forgotten, however, with his encyclical Rerum novarum considered the beginning of the Church’s social teaching. Yet even Rerum novarum is dragged into the service of the liberal order and construed as a great support for free-market capitalism. It is, of course, anything but. It is of a piece with Leo’s other great encyclicals on social matters, including Immortale Dei, Libertas praestantissimum, and Diuturnum illud. Throughout Leo’s social encyclicals, including the encyclicals about the constitution of the state, so to speak, he articulated what we would today call integralism. The state, no less than the individual, has duties to God, and the State is at least indirectly subordinated to the Church, since the end of the Church is much, much more excellent than the end of the state. This is profoundly illiberal thought.

But it is thought in keeping not only with the teaching of the Church but also the broader philosophical underpinnings (i.e., Aristotle) of that tradition. In other words, it poses none of the risks of other, no less illiberal ideologies that are in the air right now, including nationalism. It is, we think, time for a ressourcement of the Leonine magisterium. Catholics should return to Leo’s thought to see what the first principles of a rightly ordered state are. Obviously, such a project will have to be undertaken by individual Catholics or Catholics in groups, as the post-Conciliar amnesia of tradition applies to no one more strongly than Leo XIII. However, if this is an inflection point for liberalism, it will be necessary, we think, to be prepared to right the sinking ship of modern life. And that requires, ultimately, Christian principles of society.

Of course, the Leonine magisterium has a reputation for being conservative, not to say reactionary. For example, subsequent treatments of his magisterium, like St. Pius X’s syllabus Fin dalla prima nostra, tended to present it in a very conservative light. And to be sure, Leo was concerned with maintaining, if not the then-existing order, then respect for rulers and majesty, which seemed to him, correctly, to be in peril. However, it is, we think, a mistake to try to force Leo’s teachings into narrow political terms. Not least because some of his teachings were, to modern liberal eyes, quite radical. That is not to say that they are remotely controversial in doctrinal terms; simply that a modern liberal subject would likely consider them radical. And a project of Leonine ressourcement must include a fair assessment of even these teachings.


To give an example of “Leonine radicalism,” we turn to the question of when a Christian must disobey the law. One may assume that a supposed conservative like Leo would, of course, hold, as the Church has taught from St. Paul down to the present day, that Christians have an obligation to obey the law. Leo emphasizes, however, that this is not absolutely true. We shall see that a Christian may have a positive duty to disobey the law, and, moreover, this duty is not inconsistent with the obligation of a Christian to obey the civil authorities. We begin with  his 1890 encyclical “On Christians as Citizens,” Sapientiae Christianae:

Hence, they who blame, and call by the name of sedition, this steadfastness of attitude in the choice of duty have not rightly apprehended the force and nature of true law. We are speaking of matters widely known, and which We have before now more than once fully explained. Law is of its very essence a mandate of right reason, proclaimed by a properly constituted authority, for the common good. But true and legitimate authority is void of sanction, unless it proceed from God, the supreme Ruler and Lord of all. The Almighty alone can commit power to a man over his fellow men; nor may that be accounted as right reason which is in disaccord with truth and with divine reason; nor that held to be true good which is repugnant to the supreme and unchangeable good, or that wrests aside and draws away the wills of men from the charity of God.

Hallowed, therefore, in the minds of Christians is the very idea of public authority, in which they recognize some likeness and symbol as it were of the Divine Majesty, even when it is exercised by one unworthy. A just and due reverence to the laws abides in them, not from force and threats, but from a consciousness of duty; “for God hath not given us the spirit of fear.”

But, if the laws of the State are manifestly at variance with the divine law, containing enactments hurtful to the Church, or conveying injunctions adverse to the duties imposed by religion, or if they violate in the person of the supreme Pontiff the authority of Jesus Christ, then, truly, to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime; a crime, moreover, combined with misdemeanor against the State itself, inasmuch as every offense leveled against religion is also a sin against the State. Here anew it becomes evident how unjust is the reproach of sedition; for the obedience due to rulers and legislators is not refused, but there is a deviation from their will in those precepts only which they have no power to enjoin. Commands that are issued adversely to the honor due to God, and hence are beyond the scope of justice, must be looked upon as anything rather than laws. You are fully aware, venerable brothers, that this is the very contention of the Apostle St. Paul, who, in writing to Titus, after reminding Christians that they are “to be subject to princes and powers, and to obey at a word,” at once adds: “And to be ready to every good work.” Thereby he openly declares that, if laws of men contain injunctions contrary to the eternal law of God, it is right not to obey them. In like manner, the Prince of the Apostles gave this courageous and sublime answer to those who would have deprived him of the liberty of preaching the Gospel: “If it be just in the sight of God to hear you rather than God, judge ye, for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Consider the radicalism of the idea that it is a duty to resist an unjust law—more on that in a moment—and a crime to obey. And not merely a crime against God, but also a crime against the state. Now, there is some room for prudential discussion about what it means to “resist” or to “obey” an unjust law. However, that is a secondary issue.

We note that Sapientiae Christianae was not Leo’s sole treatment of civil disobedience. For example, in Diuturnum illud, his 1881 encyclical “On the Origin of Civil Power,” he taught,

The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to any one to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) This is a capsule summary of the treatment, as we see it, in Sapientiae Christianae. Thus, we may say comfortably that Leo’s magisterium includes as a major theme the duty to resist unjust laws and the compatibility of such a duty with obedience to the civil authorities.

Of course, Leo’s notion of the power in law is profoundly Thomistic. This is, really, no surprise, given the importance that Leo placed on Thomas’s thought. Looking at this question in his Treatise on Law in the Summa, the Angelic Doctor taught:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

 On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Mt. 5:40,41: “If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.”

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”

(ST Ia IIae q.96 a.4 co.) (emphasis supplied). However, Leo seems to go beyond Thomas’s teaching, however (and not for the only time). Thomas observes that laws at variance with the common good, essentially, do not bind in conscience, though a subject may make a prudential decision to submit to the law to avoid scandal or disturbance. In other words: violence. But human laws at variance with the divine law specifically cannot be obeyed at all, violence or no violence. Leo, on the other hand, teaches that human laws at variance with the divine or natural law are null and void, and that man must obey God’s laws rather than man’s in case of conflict.

This apparent extension can, we think, be explained by the Thomistic concept of natural law; that is, the natural law is the participation in the eternal law by reason (ST Ia IIae q.91 a.2 co.). Now, Thomas’s treatment of natural law is broader and more complex, especially as the natural law relates to virtue and vice versa, but this is a good enough statement of the law, so to speak. If, then, the natural law is our participation in the eternal law, then a violation of the natural law has consequences in the realm of the eternal law. To hold otherwise would be to introduce a division between the natural law and the eternal law, and Thomas himself repudiates the notion that the natural law and the eternal law are somehow separate (ST Ia IIae q.91 a.2 ad 1). Thus, a law that violates the natural law violates also the eternal law.

It is also worth observing, perhaps idly, that Thomas also taught that just laws flow from the natural law (ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 co.). In particular, there are two ways this works. One, the lawgiver may draw conclusions from the premises of the natural law. Two, the lawgiver, acting as a craftsman, may give a particular shape to this or that idea inherent in the natural law. All this explains, in part, why there is a diversity of human laws, instead of one set of implementations of the natural law (ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 obj. 3 & ad 3). It also gives us some pause about adopting a too-ferocious attitude about what is or is not consistent with the natural law. In the words of Thomas Gilby, O.P., the natural law is not “a kind of grid that could be laid on the plan of human life; it is the first stage in the working out of the living idea in divine government for incompletely intelligent and loving creatures, moving them to their fulfillment” (Blackfriars Summa v.28 appx. 6, p. 178). Gilby also makes manifest the connection between the natural law and the common good (ibid.). In some instances, it will be readily obvious that a human law contravenes the natural law. Take the laws on abortion in many western countries as an example. But, in other cases, it will not be so obvious that the law violates the natural law or harms the common good. In these cases, careful reasoning is required.

However, to a modern mind, or, indeed, even a particularly patriotic mind, there is a bigger problem than whether Leo goes beyond St. Thomas or whether there is an apparent difference between a law that violates the eternal law and a law that merely violates the natural law. There appears to be a serious contradiction between a duty to resist and a duty to obey. In part, this is due to liberalism, which rejects the idea that a law contrary to the eternal or natural law is no law; instead, the will of the sovereign, however that is defined, is sufficient to provide authority to law. It is also due to a disordered concept of the state, which tends toward positivism. Nevertheless, there may appear to be a contradiction between a duty to disobey unjust laws and true obedience to the state. But such a contradiction may be resolved, we think, by the profound resonances between this treatment in Sapientiae Christianae and a very interesting passage in Au milieu des sollicitudes, Leo’s 1892 ralliement encyclical. There, the pope taught, after condemning revolutionary activity generally:

it must be carefully observed that whatever be the form of civil power in a nation, it cannot be considered so definitive as to have the right to remain immutable, even though such were the intention of those who, in the beginning, determined it.… Only the Church of Jesus Christ has been able to preserve, and surely will preserve unto the consummation of time, her form of government. Founded by Him who was, who is, and who will be forever, she has received from Him, since her very origin, all that she requires for the pursuing of her divine mission across the changeable ocean of human affairs. And, far from wishing to transform her essential constitution, she has not the power even to relinquish the conditions of true liberty and sovereign independence with which Providence has endowed her in the general interest of souls… But, in regard to purely human societies, it is an oft-repeated historical fact that time, that great transformer of all things here below, operates great changes in their political institutions. On some occasions it limits itself to modifying something in the form of the established government; or, again, it will go so far as to substitute other forms for the primitive ones—forms totally different, even as regards the mode of transmitting sovereign power.

And how are these political changes of which We speak produced? They sometimes follow in the wake of violent crises, too often of a bloody character, in the midst of which preexisting governments totally disappear; then anarchy holds sway, and soon public order is shaken to its very foundations and finally overthrown. From that time onward a social need obtrudes itself upon the nation; it must provide for itself without delay. Is it not its privilege—or, better still, its duty—to defend itself against a state of affairs troubling it so deeply, and to re-establish public peace in the tranquillity of order? Now, this social need justifies the creation and the existence of new governments, whatever form they take; since, in the hypothesis wherein we reason, these new governments are a requisite to public order, all public order being impossible without a government. Thence it follows that, in similar junctures, all the novelty is limited to the political form of civil power, or to its mode of transmission; it in no wise affects the power considered in itself. This continues to be immutable and worthy of respect, as, considered in its nature, it is constituted to provide for the common good, the supreme end which gives human society its origin. To put it otherwise, in all hypotheses, civil power, considered as such, is from God, always from God: “For there is no power but from God.”

(Footnotes omitted and emphasis supplied.) In other words, Leo distinguishes between the civil power itself and its political form or mode of transmission. The government, so to speak, exercises and transmits the civil power, but it is not the civil power itself. Now, one can—and no less an authority than Roberto de Mattei has—criticize Au milieu and ralliement for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there is a tension between Leo’s illiberal—that is to say, Christian—politics and his embrace, likely for prudential reasons, of ralliement.

However, as we said, it seems to us that there are resonances between Sapientiae Christianae and Au milieu. That is, the division between the civil power and the political government explains—considered in addition to the authority of Holy Writ—the apparent contradiction between a duty to disobey unjust laws and a simultaneous claim to obedience. The civil power, constituted by God “to provide for the common good,” would not—cannot—be at variance with the divine or natural law, for the divine and natural law are the common good in a meaningful way. However, political governments, made up of men, can be at variance with the divine or natural law, insofar as man considered individually may sin. The political government, when it is at variance, ceases to exercise the civil power in that instance. The government, in purporting to promulgate an unjust law, has lost its divine sanction. But recall that it is not the civil power; it is simply the political form and means of transmission. Thus, the Christian obeys the true civil power while rejecting the invalid act of the political government. The duty to resist is thereby harmonized with true obedience.

It seems to us that Catholics have lost this sense of higher obedience. Instead, they have adopted the dreary liberal notion that the laws must be respected, right or wrong. The Catholic’s sole recourse in the case of a bad law is to pursue change of the law through the designated channels. Of course, it is perhaps unlikely that a government that implemented a bad law would leave open meaningful channels for Catholics to agitate for change. To resist the law more openly is, for many, sedition. Leo explains that this simply is not the case, and it is in the context of these erroneous attitudes that Leo’s teaching may be called “radical.” It is, as Leo explains, true obedience to the civil power to resist unjust laws. The political form of government is not the civil power. This does not create a sanction for revolutionary activity, of course, as Leo’s discourse in Au milieu is in the immediate context of condemning revolution, but neither does it require a sort of fatalistic quietism. It is a crime to obey an unjust law. Worse than that, by promulgating an unjust law, the political government has lost, at least in the scope of the law, its divine sanction to rule.

The Christian, then, confronted with a government that has abdicated its divine sanction to rule, must remain obedient to the immutable civil power, which is from God, which may include obedience to the government where it rules justly. In other words, the contradiction between a duty to resist unjust laws and obedience to civil authorities is only apparent. With a correct understanding of what the civil authorities are—and are not—the contradiction disappears. One may resist a government without resisting the civil power if the government has ceased to exercise the civil power justly, which is to say altogether.


You may, dear reader, object for whatever reason to the sort of analysis we have engaged in here. However, our point, even if we are wrong in our assessment of the Leonine magisterium on this question, is that the Leonine magisterium must be recovered by Catholics attempting to navigate this political moment. We submit, perhaps not quite as humbly as we ought, that this analysis is an example of what Catholics ought to be doing: returning to sound authorities and reconstructing a notion of politics in accordance with right reason. Leo’s teachings open up a vista onto other authorities, such as St. Thomas and Aristotle, who are themselves necessary to construct this politics. A politics, as it were, worthy of the name.


Another comment on current events

We were struck by passages in President Donald Trump’s inaugural address this afternoon, especially the ode to solidarity. One imagines that Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s close advisers and a student of sorts of the Church’s social doctrine, was responsible for that argument. It seems, however, like a good moment to recall what Leo XIII said in Au milieu des sollicitudes (the “Ralliement encyclical”):

First of all, let us take as a starting-point a well-known truth admitted by all men of good sense and loudly proclaimed by the history of all peoples; namely, that religion, and religion only, can create the social bond; that it alone maintains the peace of a nation on a solid foundation. When different families, without giving up the rights and duties of domestic society, unite under the inspiration of nature, in order to constitute themselves members of another larger family circle called civil society, their object is not only to find therein the means of providing for their material welfare, but, above all, to draw thence the boon of moral improvement. Otherwise society would rise but little above the level of an aggregation of beings devoid of reason, and whose whole life would consist in the satisfaction of sensual instincts. Moreover, without this moral improvement it would be difficult to demonstrate that civil society was an advantage rather than a detriment to man, as man.

Now, morality, in man, by the mere fact that it should establish harmony among so many dissimilar rights and duties, since it enters as an element into every human act, necessarily supposes God, and with God, religion, that sacred bond whose privilege is to unite, anteriorly to all other bonds, man to God. Indeed, the idea of morality signifies, above all, an order of dependence in regard to truth which is the light of the mind; in regard to good which is the object of the will; and without truth and good there is no morality worthy of the name. And what is the principal and essential truth, that from which all truth is derived? It is God. What, therefore, is the supreme good from which all other good proceeds? God. Finally, who is the creator and guardian of our reason, our will, our whole being, as well as the end of our life? God; always God. Since, therefore, religion is the interior and exterior expression of the dependence which, in justice, we owe to God, there follows a grave obligation. All citizens are bound to unite in maintaining in the nation true religious sentiment, and to defend it in case of need, if ever, despite the protestations of nature and of history, an atheistical school should set about banishing God from society, thereby surely annihilating the moral sense even in the depths of the human conscience. Among men who have not lost all notion of integrity there can exist no difference of opinion on this point.

(Emphasis supplied.)