Social conflict and the common good

A little while ago, we discussed St. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of the common good: peace, which is to say unity and good order. It occurs to us a  brief demonstration of the value of this clear definition might be illustrative. Consider the social-conflict doctrine of the Church, most clearly expressed by Pius XI and St. John Paul II. In Centesimus annus (no. 14), John Paul taught:

From the same atheistic source, socialism also derives its choice of the means of action condemned in Rerum novarum, namely, class struggle. The Pope does not, of course, intend to condemn every possible form of social conflict. The Church is well aware that in the course of history conflicts of interest between different social groups inevitably arise, and that in the face of such conflicts Christians must often take a position, honestly and decisively. The Encyclical Laborem exercens moreover clearly recognized the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a “struggle for social justice”; Quadragesimo anno had already stated that “if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice”.

However, what is condemned in class struggle is the idea that conflict is not restrained by ethical or juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of oneself); a reasonable compromise is thus excluded, and what is pursued is not the general good of society, but a partisan interest which replaces the common good and sets out to destroy whatever stands in its way. In a word, it is a question of transferring to the sphere of internal conflict between social groups the doctrine of “total war”, which the militarism and imperialism of that time brought to bear on international relations. As a result of this doctrine, the search for a proper balance between the interests of the various nations was replaced by attempts to impose the absolute domination of one’s own side through the destruction of the other side’s capacity to resist, using every possible means, not excluding the use of lies, terror tactics against citizens, and weapons of utter destruction (which precisely in those years were beginning to be designed). Therefore class struggle in the Marxist sense and militarism have the same root, namely, atheism and contempt for the human person, which place the principle of force above that of reason and law.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) John Paul’s thinking becomes much clearer. If the common good, as St. Thomas tells us, is peace, which is to say unity and good order, a partisan interest—especially a destructive partisan interest—is surely directly opposed to the common good. One cannot have total war and peace at the same time. (So much for Marxist class struggle.) Moreover, social conflict rightly conceived, John Paul and Pius XI tell us, requires always participants to seek justice in unity. In other words, social conflict is really an attempt to restore unity and good order.

To this end, consider Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (no. 114), quoted by John Paul in Centesimus annus:

For if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice, and if this is not that blessed social peace which we all seek, it can and ought to be the point of departure from which to move forward to the mutual cooperation of the Industries and Professions. So also the war declared on private ownership, more and more abated, is being so restricted that now, finally, not the possession itself of the means of production is attacked but rather a kind of sovereignty over society which ownership has, contrary to all right, seized and usurped. For such sovereignty belongs in reality not to owners but to the public authority. If the foregoing happens, it can come even to the point that imperceptibly these ideas of the more moderate socialism will no longer differ from the desires and demands of those who are striving to remold human society on the basis of Christian principles. For certain kinds of property, it is rightly contended, ought to be reserved to the State since they carry with them a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals.

(Emphasis supplied.) The great Papa Ratti tells us that a class struggle “abstain[ing] from enmities and mutual hatred,” thereby transformed into an “honest discussion” about social justice, if it is not the peace which is sought, at least is the beginning of unity and good order.

All of this makes sense in the context of what John Paul tells us. It appears to be his position that social conflicts arise in the course of history, and that Christians must “often” take a position, “honestly and decisively.” In other words, even if Christians do not create the conflict, they may well have to take a position in the conflict. However, this must be a discussion of differences founded upon a desire for social justice. If this cannot per se restore unity and good order (“that blessed social peace”), it can at least be the starting point for the process of restoring unity and good order. One may say, therefore, that social conflict has as its end the restoration of unity and good order, whether this is accomplished immediately or after some time. Thus, as Christians evaluate the circumstances that lead to their involvement in social conflict, they must evaluate also the most expedient means for restoring unity and good order.

The Josias corrects “Jake’s Mistake”

At The Josias, J.A. Feil responds to Jake Meador’s Mere Orthodoxy piece categorizing Catholic integralism. We think it’s especially significant that The Josias responded to Meador, since it is ultimately Josias-connected authors, such as Pater Edmund Waldstein and Elliot Milco, who form the basis for Meador’s impression of integralism. Feil’s piece is not long and is well worth reading to further clarify the extent of Meador’s error in turning integralism into, essentially, a papal theocracy.

St. Thomas and the definition of the political common good

For Catholics interested in the social teaching of the Church, the common good is an important concept. Indeed, much hinges upon an understanding of the common good in political terms, ranging from a Thomistic understanding of law to the duties of the government. However, we have a tendency to speak of the political common good in somewhat abstract terms; that is, to imagine the common good as a hermetically sealed concept. Human law is an ordinance of reason, we say, ordered to the common good. A people may choose any of a whole host of forms of government, we observe, provided the government serves the common good. Now, these points are correct, but they are a little opaque. And the opacity does not serve broader discourse especially well. Let us put it like this: it is not good for clear thinking if a central concept in Catholic social thought is a mystery.

However, we know that the common good is not a mystery. In the De Regno (c.3), St. Thomas Aquinas tells us what, exactly, the political common good is:

Ad hoc enim cuiuslibet regentis ferri debet intentio, ut eius quod regendum suscepit salutem procuret. Gubernatoris enim est, navem contra maris pericula servando, illaesam perducere ad portum salutis. Bonum autem et salus consociatae multitudinis est ut eius unitas conservetur, quae dicitur pax, qua remota, socialis vitae perit utilitas, quinimmo multitudo dissentiens sibi ipsi sit onerosa. Hoc igitur est ad quod maxime rector multitudinis intendere debet, ut pacis unitatem procuret. Nec recte consiliatur, an pacem faciat in multitudine sibi subiecta, sicut medicus, an sanet infirmum sibi commissum. Nullus enim consiliari debet de fine quem intendere debet, sed de his quae sunt ad finem. Propterea apostolus commendata fidelis populi unitate: solliciti, inquit, sitis servare unitatem spiritus in vinculo pacis. Quanto igitur regimen efficacius fuerit ad unitatem pacis servandam, tanto erit utilius. Hoc enim utilius dicimus, quod magis perducit ad finem. Manifestum est autem quod unitatem magis efficere potest quod est per se unum, quam plures. Sicut efficacissima causa est calefactionis quod est per se calidum. Utilius igitur est regimen unius, quam plurium.

(Emphasis supplied.) In Phelan’s translation, as revised by Fr. Eschmann, this is rendered:

This question may be considered first from the viewpoint of the purpose of government. The aim of any ruler should be directed towards securing the welfare of that which he undertakes to rule. The duty of the pilot, for instance, is to preserve his ship amidst the perils of the sea. and to bring it unharmed to the port of safety. Now the welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace. If this is removed, the benefit of social life is lost and, moreover, the multitude in its disagreement becomes a burden to itself. The chief concern of the ruler of a multitude, therefore, is to procure the unity of peace. It is not even legitimate for him to deliberate whether he shall establish peace in the multitude subject to him, just as a physician does not deliberate whether he shall heal the sick man encharged to him, for no one should deliberate about an end which he is obliged to seek, but only about the means to attain that end. Wherefore the Apostle, having commended the unity of the faithful people, says: “Be ye careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Thus, the more efficacious a government is in keeping the unity of peace, the more useful it will be. For we call that more useful which leads more directly to the end. Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several—just as the most efficacious cause of heat is that which is by its nature hot. Therefore the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many.

(Emphasis supplied.) Likewise, in the Summa Contra Gentiles (III, c. 146.5), Thomas observes:

Sicut medicus in sua operatione intendit sanitatem, quae consistit in ordinata concordia humorum, ita rector civitatis intendit in sua operatione pacem, quae consistit in civium ordinata concordia. Medicus autem abscindit membrum putridum bene et utiliter, si per ipsum immineat corruptio corporis. Iuste igitur et absque peccato rector civitatis homines pestiferos occidit, ne pax civitatis turbetur.

(Emphasis supplied.) In Bourke’s translation:

[J]ust as a physician looks to health as the end in his work, and health consists in the orderly concord of humors, so, too, the ruler of a state intends peace in his work, and peace consists in “the ordered concord of citizens.” Now, the physician quite properly and beneficially cuts off a diseased organ if the corruption of the body is threatened because of it. Therefore, the ruler of a state executes pestiferous men justly and sinlessly in order that the peace of the state may not be disrupted.

(Emphasis supplied.) As Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., puts it in his indispensable essay: “The primary intrinsic common good of the polity is the unity of order, peace.” And this is the end of rule, about which it is not legitimate to deliberate. He may deliberate about how to establish peace only.

Thomas’s primary example—the physician and his duty to heal his patient, much on his mind apparently in the 1260s—comes, as is often the case, from Aristotle, who in the Nicomachean Ethics (III.3, 1112b12–15) remarks:

We deliberate not about ends but about what contributes to ends. For a doctor does not deliberate about whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall convince, nor a statesman about whether he shall produce law and order, nor does anyone else deliberate about his end.

(Emphasis supplied.) But Fr. Eschmann, in a note to the De Regno, observes that Thomas relies upon the Latin translation of the Nicomachean Ethics, which renders eunomia as pax. Messrs. Liddell, Scott, and Jones advise us that eunomia means “good order.” Messrs. Lewis and Short advise us that pax actually has a range of meanings, tending toward peace following some sort of conflict. At any rate, it is a question for the philologists whether or not the Latin Ethics correctly renders eunomia as pax. But it is a question for the philologists only. Thomas shows us that he means to say that, as far as he is concerned, eunomia and pax are the same thing. Consider the Summa Contra Gentiles: he teaches that peace “consistit in civium ordinata concordia.” Or the De Regno: “[b]onum autem et salus consociatae multitudinis est ut eius unitas conservetur, quae dicitur pax” (emphasis supplied). The upshot is, as we say, that peace and good order are the same thing in Thomas’s mind.

Now, there are all sorts of consequences from this correct understanding of the common good. When Aquinas, for example, tells us that human law is a dictate of practical reason ordered to the common good (ST Ia IIae q.90 a.1 co. & ad 3; Ia IIae q.90 a.2 co.; Ia IIae q.91 a.3 co.), we see that human law is really ordered to good order, unity, and peace. And when Aquinas tells us that human laws framed according to the divine and natural laws make men simply good (Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co.), we may deduce that there is an intrinsic connection between good order and virtue. Aquinas even makes this point explicit (Ia IIae q.92 a.1 ad 3). Moreover, difficult Thomistic teachings, such as his teaching on the death penalty, become clearer when it is understood that the common good is good order, peace, and unity. Subsequent teachings also snap into clearer focus, such as when the great Pius XI talks, in Quadragesimo anno, about regulating private property according to the common good. Recalling the intrinsic connection between good order and virtue, we can even progress to a deeper understanding of Thomistic scholarship, such as Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists.

None of this is, we think, especially esoteric or even particularly hard to understand. However, it is a principle that we have seen get a little lost in the discussions about the political common good. Now that more and more people—recognizing that Enlightenment liberalism is a dead end—are exploring the perennial teaching of the Church about the rightly ordered state, which is drawn from the greater western tradition, it is essential to understand the terms of art. For example, when one says, quite reasonably, we think, that liberalism is per se corrosive of the common good, one may better understand such a statement with the correct definition of the common good in mind.

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.

The call is coming from inside the option

Rod Dreher has decided that none of the critics of The Benedict Option have understood him.  Either they are reading things into the book that he did not put there or they are working out obscure personal grievances. This is, of course, a risible assertion, not least since Dreher has written (and written and written and written) about the Benedict Option over the past several years. It is also in keeping with Dreher’s near-constant redefinition of the Option in the face of criticism. The idea is very simple: Christians have lost pretty much every political engagement they’ve fought over the past, oh, fifty years (draw a straight line between Roe and Obergefell, if you like), and they need to withdraw from society. But what happens when they withdraw from society? Dreher is convinced that most Christians possess only a watered-down faith. The problem, we think, is more serious than that.

Giving us a gentle ribbing, the blogger Subsannabit suggests that it is error to think that modern western liberalism is doing politics. Subsannabit, in an interesting post about true radicalism, also observes that most people simply do not do politics. Of course, Subsannabit may err by setting the bar for doing politics too high (cf. ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co. & ad 4; Ia IIae q.96 a.4 co. & ad 3), but s/he is not wrong about the fact that modern western liberalism is not really politics in any meaningful sense, at least as the term is rightly understood. Certainly the liberal is not interested in applying practical reason to frame laws to make people simply good. Such a process would force a modern western liberal to concede a bunch of things he would be loath to concede. The modern liberal prefers to write laws to create in essence a neutral playing field on which everyone can pursue his or her personal good without much restraint or even much interference. The common good does not factor into this sort of thought. And, for this reason, this sort of liberalism is, of course, corrosive of the very idea of civil society (Grenier, 3 Thomistic Philosophy no. 1154, pp. 455–56). For proof of the thesis, one has only to open a newspaper or turn on the TV.

Such liberalism is, for most people, an omnipresent, omnipotent force. The law, we know, is a teacher, even if the lesson is a bad one. There is simply no escape from it. Some people can see the problem and even sketch proposals for a solution, but it is hard to imagine the implementation of such proposals without adverting to liberal ideas. After all, liberalism is, for most westerners, as natural as the air we breathe. And this is fundamentally the problem with Dreher’s Benedict Option—and any number of similar proposals—retreating from society will do no good if you bring liberalism with you. Whatever polity or society you create will have the same flaw at its heart as the one you left behind. It is like the scene in any number of horror, science-fiction, and thriller pictures, when Our Hero or Our Heroine reaches a safe spot, only to discover that he or she is Not Alone. Or worse, when Our Hero or Our Heroine has asked the phone company to trace the menacing calls, only to be informed that the calls are coming from inside the house.

And Dreher, whether he understands it or not, wants to bring liberalism with him. Religious liberty, however helpful it may be to Christians at the moment, is the lynchpin of the liberal order. Once one puts truth and error on the same plane, the rest falls into place quickly. And it has the same consequences that liberalism always has. Leo XIII explained this admirably in Libertas praestantissimum (nos. 19–22). And this is, as it was expressed in Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate, a major problem for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, holding to the Church’s traditional teachings, even beyond those difficulties posed by the New Mass. To say then, that Christians, withdrawing from the most part from society, will remain politically engaged to the extent that it is necessary to defend religious liberty—which is what Dreher has said—is to say that Christians will carry with them the seeds of liberalism. This guarantees that they will get to their communities, breathe a deep sigh of relief, and turn around to discover that they are Not Alone. The menacing calls from liberalism are coming from inside the Option.

If you don’t like the analogy to popcorn flicks, consider the emotional climax of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: Act Two of Die Walküre. Wotan’s long-suffering wife, Fricka, has demanded that Wotan do something about the incestuous adultery of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, despite the fact that Wotan was Siegmund’s father and teacher (“So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern?”). In point of fact, Fricka demands that Wotan do nothing when Sieglinde’s husband comes to settle accounts. Wotan hoped to raise a free hero who could recover the titular Ring, which, as one remembers from Das Rheingold, Wotan himself cannot touch, lest he break the contracts that give him his authority (“Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich”). Wotan then has to explain the situation to his daughter, Brünnhilde, and comes to the realization that in all his efforts to make a free hero, he finds only himself (“Nun einer könnte, was ich nicht darf”). That is, all his creatures are, just that, creatures, and they reflect him and his all-too-real flaws. The optioneers will discover, Wotan-like, that they’ve made communities resembling primarily themselves: good liberal subjects.

This is, in part, why we have talked so much about a ressourcement of Aristotelian-Thomistic political theory, which finds its best modern expression in the magisterium of Leo XIII. Without a proper understanding of the polity, how just laws are framed, and a proper conception of politics, it is simply not rational to expect a withdrawal from society in any meaningful sense to spark a restoration of Christian life. One will most likely create enclaves of religiously flavored liberalism that rely ultimately on liberal concepts such as religious liberty to survive. Now, perhaps the withdrawals proposed are not withdrawals in any meaningful sense. Perhaps they are merely histrionics, designed to emphasize to secular liberals the age-old point “You’ll really miss us when we’re gone.” Such histrionics are understandable—as we say, draw a line from Roe to Obergefell—but ultimately not productive. Either way, no progress is going to be made against the forces of liberalism without rediscovering the teaching of Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII.

Another new essay worth your time

The Josias, after another relatively quiet period, is on a roll lately. A few days ago, they ran a really very insightful and provocative essay by John Francis Nieto. Now, they have an equally insightful and provocative essay by our old friend, Pater Edmund Waldstein. The essay, touching upon the immigration question currently the source of much debate and disquiet in the United States, connects the natural law right of migration recognized by Pius XII in Exsul Familia Nazarethana with the universal destination of goods. He also provides some fascinating, helpful background on the debate between globalism and nationalism, which is part and parcel of the immigration question. In other words, it’s a must-read piece if you want to discuss current events from a Catholic perspective.

We will not spoil it for you by quoting excerpts. Instead we will urge you to go to The Josias and read it.

Another project of ressourcement

Following up on our piece about Leonine ressourcement, it occurs to us that someone could very profitably write a concise (if not brief) introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic politics, aimed toward a popular audience. Certainly there are already essays pointing in this direction, such as Pater Edmund Waldstein’s introduction to the common good and Coëmgenus’s “Theses and Responses on Antiamericanism.” (Both are at The Josias.) Both essays are excellent, though both presume a certain level of knowledge about Aristotelian-Thomistic politics in their readers. However, we have in mind something considerably more basic.

For example, it is far from clear to us whether there is widespread understanding of the proposition that a law is a dictate of practical reason shaped to the common good. And we are certain that few people understand that the purpose of law is to make citizens good simpliciter (cf. ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co. & ad 1). It seems to us, as you, dear reader, may have deduced from our piece on Leonine ressourcement that we think it is a problem that so few Catholics are conversant with their own tradition of political thought. As we said, the liberal order appears to be at an inflection point, if not a point of crisis. Of course, as we did not observe in our original essay, this could be but a simple pause in the development of liberalism, a moment while liberalism is adjusted to take into account the rising ethnic and class-based resentments currently affecting the political order of the west. But such a thought is very depressing. Instead, we prefer to think that this is a moment when Catholics can challenge the liberal order meaningfully, by drawing on their political tradition and the social teaching of the Church.

We think a list of theses, much like the essays linked above, would be a wonderful format for an introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic politics, though with plenty of citations to authorities, so that readers will be able to run down the sources themselves. And, of course, it will be necessary to draw upon the magisterium to clarify some points. For example, there are certain contradictions between the Leonine magisterium and Aristotelian-Thomistic notions of the state and rights. (Compare Leo’s treatment of the priority of the family to the state in Rerum novarum with Aristotle’s argument in Politics 1, for example.) Given the Church’s authority to interpret and defend the natural law, conferred by divine ordinance, these contradictions must be identified, explored in some detail, and resolved. Ultimately, such an introduction would serve as a resource for Catholics thinking about what comes next.

Perhaps such a handy introduction does exist and we have simply missed it. But, again, we would want to reduce the principles to their simplest possible form.