9) CLASSICAL POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
By Classical Political Philosophy, I mean basically the Greek and Roman political thinkers and experiences. This tradition is the one in which most of the formal ideas and disciplines were initially established. They have a claim to universality and seek to engage all other political experience in the consideration of the bases of human political living and the grounds for it.
The study of Classical Political Philosophy is, of course, a very wide and remarkably fertile field. I will here give three basic essays that I have written and include a bibliography of other things. I will include a bibliography and five essays: 1) "The Death of Plato"; 2) "Dedicated to a Universal Purpose: The Antiquity of the New World"; and 3) "A Reflection on the Classical Tractate on Tyranny: The Problem of Democratic Tyranny"; 4) "Aristotle: Religion, Politics, and Philosophy"; 5) "Transcendence and Political Philosophy."
Bibliography of other Schall materials in classical political philosophy:
1) "The Abiding Significance of Gnosticism," The American Ecclesiastical Review, CXLVII (September, 1962), 164-73; 2) "The Significance of Post-Aristotelian Thought in Political Theory," Cithara, 3 (Novermber, 1963), 56-79; 3) "The Best Form of Government," Review of Politics, 40 (January, 1978), 97-123; 4) "Revelation, Reason, and Politics: Catholic Reflections on Strauss," Gregorianum, (Rome), (Pt. I, #2, 1981), 448-64; (Pt. II, #3, 1981) 469-97; 5) "On Teaching the Political Thought of Plato," The Classical Bulletin, 58 (February, 1982), 51-55 (also in Another Sort of Learning);
6) "Plotinus and Political Philosophy," Gregorianum (Rome), 66 (#4, 1984), 687-707; 7) "On Natural Law -- Aristotle," Vera Lex, VII (#1, 1987), 11-12; 8) "Nature and Finality in Aristotle," Laval Théologique et Philosophique, 45 (Février, 1989), 73-85; 9) "Aristotle on Friendship," The Classical Bulletin, 65 (#3-4, 1989), 83-88; 10) "Post-Aristotelian Political Philosophy and Modernity," Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, Teil II: Principat, Band 36.7 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), 4902-36;
11) "On the Uniqueness of Socrates," Gregorianum, (Rome), 76 (#2, 1995), 343-62; 12) "Friendship and Political Philosophy," The Review of Metaphysics, L (September, 1996), 121-41 (included in C. 19 of this web site)..
ON THE DEATH OF PLATO
Some Philosophical Thoughts on the Thracian Maidens
"But there is another sort of old age too: the tranquil and serene evening of a life spent in peaceful, blameless, enlightened pursuits. Such, we are told, were the last years of Plato, who died in his eighty-first year while still actively engaged in writing."
In Volume III of his Order and History, Eric Voegelin reflected on the central importance of both Plato and Aristotle. His treatise on Plato is an extraordinary analysis of Plato's life and abiding philosophic importance. When I ask a class to read this volume on Plato, I insist that they do not read the last short paragraph of this book until they have read the rest of the book. I do not want them to miss the astonishment that I myself experienced on first reading it. Too often, of course, such is human nature, this admonition not to read a designated passage has the effect of tempting most readers to read first what is not to be read until last. This reaction is not necessarily a bad idea in reading any book, except perhaps a detective story or Voegelin's book on Plato.
The last paragraph of Voegelin's treatise is a poignant account of the death of Plato. The charm of this passage matches the spell that Plato himself sought to cast in his writings. Plato invoked this very literary charm to incite us to pass to the higher things or at least to render us benevolent to them. Indeed, it was his answer to Homer. He realized that if his own style were not as intriguing as that of Homer, his philosophy would not be read by anyone except the philosophers. And it was precisely those who were not philosophers who most threatened the life of the philosopher.
In violation of everything I have intimated in the previous paragraphs, however, I am going to begin this consideration by citing precisely this last paragraph of Eric Voegelin on the death of Plato. I can think of no justification for this procedure except that it is the only way I know to reflect with some care upon a certain extraordinary line of thought that Voegelin's ending can kindle in us about the ultimate meaning of Plato. In considering the death of Plato, moreover, we are naturally and rightly prepared to compare it with the death of Socrates as Plato himself recounted that famous death in his own dialogues, in the Euthyphro, The Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo.
We wonder which of the two deaths was the more profound, granting that the death of Socrates was infinitely more memorable and graphic. Plato perhaps had no Plato to account for his own death, though Cicero recalled its serenity. Could this missing philosophical account of the death of Plato be what Voegelin, in the sparest fashion, belatedly tried to supply? The life of Plato subsequent to the execution of Socrates, no doubt, is consumed by the question that the death of Socrates had left Plato as a young man to resolve; namely, whether there is a city in which the philosopher will not be killed? Evidently, Plato in the end found, or perhaps even founded, such a city. He was not killed. In the city he founded, we still read about Socrates.
Plato's own famous pupil, Aristotle, to be sure, had once remarked, after an anti-Macedonian movement in Athens, that he himself had fled Athens, lest it be "guilty of the same crime twice". But Socrates himself did not choose flight or banishment to another city to avoid the same crime once. Surely, we do not want to suggest that Aristotle lacked bravery. Did Aristotle mean rather that there was nothing philosophically to be gained in making the same point twice? Aristotle knew the lesson of the end of The Republic, that if we do not choose our daemon rightly the first time, we shall not likely choose it rightly a second or third time. Was philosophy already safe then because of what Plato had established to replace Athens, that is, his philosophical Academy in which the memory of Socrates would remain alive? When Aristotle subsequently found himself in Asia Minor or in Pella, was he actually in the same city that he had left, the one within Athens that Plato had bequeathed beyond his own death? Does the antagonism of politics and philosophy remain in all existing cities? Do philosophy and politics both point beyond themselves?
No doubt, we sense a distinct ominousness in the later dialogues of Plato, especially in the Gorgias, a dialogue full of foreboding, of war and strife, as its first lines intimate. The philosopher attempts to deal with the shrewd politician who has the power to kill him. When the politician chooses not to participate in the philosopher's sole protection for his life, namely, in the continuation of honest discourse about what "true politics" really are, we know the philosopher is dead (521). His only safety is found if the politician will examine the issues with him. Already in The Republic, the philosopher who returned to the Cave and told his experiences to his former companions was in danger of his life (517). The prisoners did not want to hear that their life was not the real one.
Does Plato's serene death mean rather that philosophy has been rendered harmless, that Plato died still writing in peace because philosophy no longer threatened the order of existing regimes? Do the politicians now control philosophers by threat of death? Plato himself, in his dealings in Sicily, came close to death a couple of times in his efforts to educate the tyrant. We have no reason to assume that Plato was a coward. He did not dispute Socrates' courage and strength. Plato's death seems to portend something else, however, something on a par with the noble death of Socrates. Thus we would be surprised if the death of Plato, in some other way, did not also match the death of Socrates in philosophic profundity. How are we to think about these things?
The following passage about Plato's final day in 347 B.C. is the conclusion to Eric Voegelin's Plato: "Plato died at the age of eighty-one. On the evening of his death he had a Thracian girl play the flute to him. The girl could not find the beat of the nomos. With a movement of his finger, Plato indicated to her the Measure." What is to be noted about this riveting passage? First of all, we observe that Plato died in his own bed. He was some eleven years older than Socrates at the latter's death. Plato did not drink hemlock by order of the laws of the democracy. To be sure, he did die in the evening, like Socrates. Athens could have let Socrates die of old age, but it chose instead to execute him at seventy. Athens, however, did let Plato die of old age. Old age was the first topic of discussion in The Republic. Socrates said that he liked to talk to old men as they had been down a path we all will follow. Plato went further along this path than Socrates.
Socrates' last day in jail, we recall, was announced by Xanthippe, who told Socrates that this day would be a sad one for him as it would be the last time in which he could converse with his friends. All of Socrates' days, he hoped, were spent examining life, to see if it was worth living. He had spoken with those who were said to be wise because he wondered about the Oracle who said that he was the wisest man in Greece. No one else proved to be wise except in his limited speciality. Socrates' days were spend in talking to his friends, something he enjoyed doing.
Socrates' last day is best described as his second trial. His first trial before the jury at Athens left certain things unsettled. The friends of Socrates were quite unhappy with it all. Socrates' life could not end without completing his conversations with the potential philosophers examining him about what he was doing. Socrates' conversation did end on his last day. He finished what he had to say. The potential philosophers had only tears, not refutations. Socrates took the hemlock calmly.
For an older friend like Crito, the death of Socrates initially represented a defeat, a slurring of Crito's public reputation. For everyone in the city knew that a rich man, as Crito was, could easily afford to bribe Socrates out of jail. But Socrates debated with Crito about why Socrates should remain in jail and suffer, though the execution could not be called a punishment since nothing can hurt a good man. Clearly such an extraordinary decision of Socrates to obey the laws needed explication.
But this jail and the sentence were not merited punishments for Socrates as he had done nothing wrong, though he had upset the order of the existing city. He did not know whether death was evil in the first place so he could not act as if it were the worst evil, to be prevented at all costs. He did know, however, that doing wrong was not open to him. These public arguments at the trial, of course, did not satisfy the young potential philosophers gathered around Socrates on his last day. In this last conversation, Socrates spoke of subjects not easily addressed in public, yet topics that had to be faced in a complete life.
Some of these friends like Apollodorus, who was to recount The Symposium from Aristodemus, were already weeping. They showed thereby that they had not learned Socrates' lesson, that philosophy was a preparation for death. When death is present, the philosopher is present. Was Plato ultimately the one follower of Socrates who understood this? If anything the young listeners were very annoyed with Socrates, so that they subjected him to a second, more critical, trial, the trial before the potential philosophers about why he could face death so calmly. His apology at the public trial had not satisfied them, nor had it convinced a majority of the jury.
Socrates, by objective standards, may indeed have performed brilliantly at the public trial in handling the accusations of corrupting the youth. Many of these youths, sons of the leading citizens of Athens, were sitting before him on this last day in jail. Many of these same youth had annoyed their fathers, Socrates' accusers, by going home and playfully imitating Socrates. This semi-jesting imitation was why the fathers thought Socrates was undermining the city. This bothersomeness is what brought Socrates, from his hiddenness in his private life, to their public attention. Socrates indeed may have convinced some jurors and potential philosophers at the trial that he did believe in the gods, even if not quite believing in the gods of the city. No doubt, in the minds of these young men, among whom, though he was ill on this last day, was the young Plato, Socrates was not guilty as charged in the public trial. But there seemed to be another sort of guilt, even more grave, of which he could be accused. Was the absence of Plato at the death of Socrates related to his own very different death, the death of Plato? Do all real philosophers die in the same way, whether with hemlock or with the sounds of the flute?
From the minute they heard of Socrates' discourse with Crito about how he was bound to Athenian law, the friends knew he was certainly going to die. He had already explained in his Apology that he did not want to drift in exile from one city to another and have the same thing happen over and over in any well-ordered city. Nor would he cease to philosophize. But as often as he had told them that philosophy was a preparation for death, something further was needed before they would be satisfied. Of course, the last day of discourse concerned the long and intricate discussion about the immortality of the soul. Socrates' calm before death had intelligible roots that the potential philosophers had not previously understood. The power of the state to kill Socrates always remained. But if it did execute him, it was not a defeat of philosophy. In fact, when the state kills the philosopher, it may strengthen philosophy. The only philosophy that is weakened is that whose teachers yield to the state seeking its own will.
Rather, Socrates' execution was the judgment on the state itself. No state was to have legitimate power before philosophy if it conceived itself, on its own standards, to be an alternative to philosophy. The philosopher who is willing to accept death cannot be threatened by the politician who, as we see in the Gorgias, loses his power over the philosopher who is unaffected by the politician's most dire threats. Callicles, Meletos, Lycon, and Anytos do preserve the democracy they love. In so doing they demonstrate the danger of democracy, a danger that Socrates evidently considered to be the most subtle danger a philosopher could encounter.
Philosophy, in Callicles' view, is set aside in the politician's youth as something interesting, but not for use as an adult. Philosophy asks questions that the actual state, because of its own disorder, cannot bear. It is better to silence Socrates than to change the regime. The sons of the politicians and craftsmen are expected to follow their fathers, not Socrates. Socrates had called the youth to another life, not to the traditional ones. This was his danger. But the real struggle was not with the fathers but with the sons, with their choosing which life to follow. Socrates seldom talked to those who had already decided, who had already definitively revealed their souls as upholders of the polis, of the ways of life of wealth, pleasure, or power. Socrates could only talk with those who could still change their souls.
When students read The Apology, I ask them to indicate in the text just where they are in fact themselves present. At first, one catches in their eyes a look of amusement or polite skepticism. What sort of a question is it? How could Plato have included each of them in his Dialogue? Yet, each is there, almost by name, certainly by spiritual reaction. On some reflection, suddenly a student will understand. To be sure, they all might have been there as members of the jury. Some of these very students, no doubt, will sit in similar trials some day and analogously vote to kill Socrates, even though most in their schools would sympathize with Socrates when they read him. Others will be there as one of the three accusers of Socrates, or as the potential philosophers whom Socrates was accused of having corrupted. It is not a bad idea, of course, to place oneself within the dialogues of Plato, to find one's own personality somehow shining through the characters he so memorably describes.
But the immediate answer to the question is that each of us is present when, on reading the trial account, we too accuse this same jury, now alive before us in Plato's account. Plato the philosopher, because he wrote of the Trial of Socrates, makes us all participants, whether we like it or not. Socrates, with some amusement, had proposed that his punishment be free room and board at the town hall. He had done nothing but keep the citizens alert to the need to examine themselves daily, itself a good service to any city. He was the gadfly. He kept the citizens from being dull. Socrates then turned to the jurors to single out those who had voted for his condemnation and death. With sudden seriousness in contrast to his previously playful mood, he spoke to them with gravity. He told them that from now on, whenever the story of this trial is told, these jurors will be condemned in the minds of any reasonable man as those who killed the philosopher.
The students clearly recognize in reading the trial, that they too had agonized over those two hundred and eighty-one jurors who voted to kill Socrates, that they too, as Socrates said, would join down the ages those vast legions who have again and again condemned that now immortal and deplorable Athenian jury and, through it, the politics that killed Socrates in a legal trial. Most of today's students, on reading this result, want to go out and change the world, not themselves. They want to become lawyers and doctors. They do not remember what Plato said in Book Three of The Republic, that a society filled with students of law and medicine is already a sick society. Many students continue to think that more law and more medicine will cure what can only be cured by a reform of their own souls. Again by contrast, we recall that Plato died calmly, at first sight undramatically, in his bed.
On reading of the death of Plato, however, do we, down the ages, also become present at his death? Of course we do. Again we see Plato, in his eighties, a man who has mostly finished The Laws in which Socrates as such does not appear. Plato was given enough life to complete his projects, to consider all sides of the death of Socrates. He graphically delineated the souls of each of the major and even the minor characters we find in the sundry dialogues -- Theages, Meletos, Cebes, Thrasymachus, Pausanias, Alcibiades, Polemarchus, Cleitophon, Laches, Gorgias, Ion, and many others. Each had his part. Plato understood the complexity of character, of life.
And who is at Plato's death? He does not have a room full of followers seeking to copy down the final revisions of The Laws. No conversation seems left to complete. Aristotle is not there. Nor is Dionysios. His older brothers Glaucon and Adeimanthus are not there. No Xanthippe is there. No three sons. No potential philosophers. Who is there is a young flute-player, a Thracian girl. She is not there in any erotic capacity. Plato evidently wants to her to play the flute, that special instrument about which he so carefully discoursed in The Republic (399). That is to say, the philosopher dies to the sound of music. The music is not a therapy, but a pleasure. Aristotle had remarked that the gentleman should know music but should not be able to play a musical instrument too well. He knew that to play music well required a lifetime of study and practice, a lifetime that would prevent the gentleman from knowing the higher things, however much music might be related to them, as it intrinsically was.
Plato, of course, does not call in an accomplished flautist, as, presumably, he might have. He calls in the maiden who cannot find the measure. He can still teach her the measure. He moves his finger indicating the beat and rhythm. We are not told whether she picks it up correctly, but we assume she does. We assume that Plato died having heard the right measure, that he died listening to the flute as it should be played. His death would not have been complete had he not heard the correct measure. Thus Plato hears the flute with the proper measure.
Who is this flute-player? We note she was a Thracian. We can remember in The Symposium, when the banquet was about to begin, that a flute-girl entered the room ready to play. The diners at Agathon's house discuss drinking, as the three old men also do in the early books of The Laws. The guests at Agathon's table had all been drinking heavily the evening before. So they decide not to drink, or at least not to drink in competition or in excess. If someone might want some wine, that was quite all right, but if he did not, that was all right also. The banquet was convivial, pleasant. Even Socrates had dressed up for the occasion -- "fresh from his bath and sandalled" (174). But when this conversation, or rather when the speeches began in earnest, the wine was moderate and the flute-girl left, only to return at the end when Alcibiades unexpectedly roars into the room.
The flute-girls at Plato's death and at Agathon's banquet are mindful of the Thracian maidens. The Thracian maidens are those very normal and delightful young women who tell us better than any one else what most people think of philosophy, think of what Socrates does with his days. Aristotle, it will be recalled, remarked that the philosopher Thales proved the usefulness of philosophy by gaining a monopoly on the oil and wine presses so that when the bumper season arrived, having himself studied all the signs of nature, all the unlearned growers had to pay him handsomely to use his presses. But as he did not want the money, being a philosopher, he was just illustrating that the philosopher was poor because he chose to be, because his time was better spent in other things. The philosopher knew something about music and about business, but he was not a musician or a businessman.
However, when two famous philosophers were walking down the road one day learnedly discussing the stars and other exalted things, one of them fell into a hole that he unfortunately did not see because of his absorption in philosophy. Seeing this, to them, absurd incident, the Thracian maidens began to giggle and laugh at the philosopher. Most of the human race, subsequently, would side with the Thracian maidens. One might suggest from this famous tale, that the Thracian maidens ultimately also needed to be attracted to philosophy. Is it too much to suggest that, in Voegelin's account, this Thracian flute-girl at the death bed of Plato, fumbling with the measure, hints at a possible resolution?
But Plato's death has a further implication. The flute-girl did, evidently, when taught, catch the measure. She was not unteachable. Philosophy seeks the eminently teachable. Plato himself knew the measure. That is to say, Plato died, to borrow Josef Pieper's felicitous phrase, "in tune with the world." Plato did not make the measure. He discovered it. He knew it. Protagoras in a famous phrase had affirmed that "man is the measure of all things." In his Laws, Plato had argued rather that we are the puppets of God, that our works and days, even our highest human sciences, even politics, are not serious, at least not in comparison with God. "God is the measure of all things" (716). We are to spend our days "singing, dancing, and sacrificing" because this is the only response we can make to the good that is (803).
Thus, when Plato dies, he dies according to a measure that he knew but did not constitute. The Thracian girl picked up a beat that she imperfectly blew into her double-reed flute, but she did not quite know how it worked. Plato taught her the measure. Those who did not know the measure could learn it from the philosopher. The redemption of the flute-girls and the Thracian maidens for philosophy finds its source here, in the measure that Plato in dying did not himself constitute but which he knew and knew could be learned by the flute-girl. The last person who sees Plato alive is the Thracian maiden, as she plays according to the measure he taught her. Her flute is the last thing he listens to. Plato died with philosophy reconciled to the Thracian maidens and the flute girls. The Thracian maiden who played for him did not laugh at him, the philosopher dying. She did not think it mockingly amusing that this dying philosopher should call for her so that he might listen to the flute as he left this world. The philosopher is not laughed at. He is attended to, having learned the measure.
Socrates, as he left this world, himself on his last day, had wondered about music. Before his conversation on immortality in the Phaedo, Socrates confesses that perhaps he had misunderstood the Oracle. Perhaps the Oracle meant that he should actually compose music or poetry, cultivate the arts. So he did set some passages in Aesop's fables to verse and some hymns to the festival gods. And Cicero also recalled that in his old age, "Socrates learnt to play that favourite instrument of the ancients, the lyre." Plato realized in The Republic that the only way to counteract Homer would be to write a poetry and a music that out-charmed Homer. Plato's music, as we learn each time we read him, was beguiling. Even Callicles was trained in his earlier days by reading with amusement the philosophers, so that there seems to be some missing link between the philosopher and the politician. What had gone wrong in the life of the master politician Callicles? He found the image of Socrates in mature age, still conversing with potential philosophers quietly in corners, to be ridiculous and a waste of time. He had lost the charm. Socrates was unintelligible to him, though he sensed him still to be dangerous and thus would not answer his questions. Callicles, the statesman, was unwilling to test his own reasoning. He lacked music. He was unaware of the relation of music and philosophy.
But both the Thracian maidens and Callicles needed to be redeemed by true music and true politics. That is to say, we could not have a city composed only of philosophers, only of shepherds, only of craftsmen, only of politicians, only of flute-girls. Harmony required more. Specialization meant that not everyone could be expert in everything else, that is was all right if everyone did not do everything. The philosopher was a specialist in the whole. It was all right that Plato, the philosopher, did not himself play the flute well, but not all right that he did not know anything about it, did not delight in listening to it. Philosophers enjoy music in part because they know it, in part because they know that life is more than philosophy. All things had their harmony in the philosopher who was to know the parts, even the measure of the laws of music. Plato did not ask for a flute so that he could himself play. As he lay dying, he did not act, he listened, until he heard what was not in tune with the measure. Music and nomos were reconciled. The Thracian maiden played. Plato listened. Plato does not die in silence.
At the end of Symposium, "the sound of the flute is heard" (212). Alcibiades, unlike Callicles, has felt the charm of philosophy all his disordered life, even though he had to shut his ears against it. Astonishingly, he compares Socrates precisely to a flute-player.
And are you not a flute-player? That you are, and a performer far more wonderful than Marsyas. He indeed with instruments used to charm the souls of men by the powers of his breath, and the players of his music do so still: for the melodies of Olympus' are derived from Marsyas who taught them, and these, whether they are played by a great master or by a miserable flute-girl, have a power which no others have; they alone possess the soul and reveal the wants of those who have need of gods and mysteries, because they are divine. But you produce the same effect with your words only, and do not require the flute; this is the difference between you and him (215).
The melodies of Olympus have a measure. Whether they are played by Marsyas or a miserable flute-girl, they have power. They possess the soul and reveal the "wants of those who have need of gods and mysteries." Those who have need of gods and mysteries were those who were not the philosophers. The philosopher had no need of being a musician, but he loved music. He had no need of the mysteries and the gods, but he loved them. What was missing in the cosmos was someone to praise what is for what it was, for its own sake.
The words of Socrates, Alcibiades tells us, are like music. They have a divine origin. Chaerephon, we recall, had gone to the Oracle at Delphi. His brother Chaerecrates was at the trial and could testify to it. Alcibiades, whose life Socrates had saved at the Battle of Delium, was the most talented and handsome of all the young men of Athens. Socrates loved him in his potential virtue but not in his corruption. Alcibiades stands at the threshold of ruining the city because he rejects philosophy. He goes on to betray Athens, Sparta, and Persia. He admits that Pericles speaks well, but when Alcibiades heard Socrates, he explained, "I felt as if I could hardly endure the life which I am leading." Alcibiades realized that if he did not "shut his ears" against the words of Socrates, "and fly as from the voice of a siren, my fate would be like that of others -- he would transfix me, and I should grow old sitting at his feet" (216). Alcibiades does not grow old sitting at Socrates' feet. Plutarch gives two accounts of Alcibiades' death (404 B.C.). He is murdered by darts either because he debauched a maiden or because he betrayed Lacaedaimon and Persia.
Xanthippe, his wife, is not present when Socrates drinks the hemlock, though she has been there in the morning. The potential philosophers and the good jailer are there. Socrates remembers to offer a sacrifice to the God of Healing, for he is being healed in his death. Socrates entrusts this sacrificial mission to his old friend Crito, who could not get him out of jail with his money because Socrates had forbad him. We realize already at the banquet of Agathon (415 BC), however, that Socrates, in undergoing a more severe test than that of death, will not be corrupted by Alcibiades. He will not do wrong for the sake either of Callicles' demos or Alcibiades' own ambitions, or beauty or love, or pleasure, or popularity.
Why must Alcibiades at the banquet close his ears to the siren voice of Socrates? "For he makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the he concerns of the Athenians; therefore I hold my ears and tear myself away from him". Alcibiades knows perfectly well why he acts as he does. In this explanation he is more revealing than Callicles, though both of them do the same thing in refusing to listen to Socrates. "For I know that I cannot answer him or say that I ought not to do as he bids, but when I leave his presence the love of popularity gets the better of me. And therefore I run away and fly from him..." (216). Alcibiades takes the only escape possible. He refuses to listen and he immediately seeks to corrupt Socrates so that Socrates will not be superior to him in virtue.
When Alcibiades fails, he admits to the others that "I could not help wondering at his natural temperance and self-restraint and manliness". Alcibiades wonders about this virtue, but to no avail. Aristotle had said that wonder was the beginning of philosophy. Socrates, in fact, not Alcibiades, was the only one "with any real powers of enjoyment" (219). Alcibiades is thus the model of the opposite of the philosopher-king, more so than Callicles who is not a philosopher. Alcibiades not merely refuses to listen to argument. He also takes positive steps not to know. He does everything in his power not to acknowledge that he is wrong, even though he does know it. He tries to corrupt the only source of virtue he admires so that he will have no model testifying to his corruption..
The worst tyrant, as we recall from Book One of The Republic, was the one who did evil or whatever else he wanted. But this same tyrant not merely wanted to do evil or what he wanted, he also wanted to be praised by everyone for what he did. This praise is crucial, for it implies that even evil needs rational approbation. Otherwise, as Socrates shows us in The Gorgias, the tyrant is utterly alone and in the worst possible position. The ring of Gyges, the original invisible man who could do what he wanted if only he were not seen, corrupted also the people in defiling the shepherd who found the ring and corruptly became a king. In the Gorgias, the worst tyrant is the one who thinks that to do evil is better than to suffer it. He is the one who refuses punishment for his evil rather than freely to accept it and therefore acknowledge a good he did not make.
At the end of Alcibiades I, Alcibiades seems to have decided to follow Socrates; he has shown that he could follow the highest arguments of virtue posed by the philosopher. "I shall begin at this moment to take trouble over justice" Alcibiades explains. To this happy thought, Socrates responds, "And I would wish you to continue doing so. Yet, I stand in dread, not because I do not have trust in your nature, but rather because, seeing the strength of the city, I fear that it will overcome both me and you" (135). In a sense, we have here the preview of the young Augustine, the two loves and the two cities. Socrates lived a private life because he expected he would have been killed long ago if he did not. However ready for death he was, he did not seek it, but suffered it if it came along. The Symposium revealed that Alcibiades, not Socrates, was the one seeking the beloved. What ultimately attracted Alcibiades, in spite of himself, was philosophy, the love of wisdom and truth. Socrates, for his part, realized that Alcibiades could also corrupt him, the philosopher, as well as himself. How? Because of another love, the love that Alcibiades confessed that he was attracted to whenever he left Socrates' presence. Politics, when it did not feel the charm of philosophy, remained the most serious opponent to philosophy.
If Socrates is the real flute-player, as Alcibiades said, is it not of some interest that Plato dies alone, in old age, of a natural death, with the sole consolation of a flute player, a Thracian maiden who does not know the measure? "God is the measure of all things" (716). Plato knew the nomos. His death was in tune with everything that was in the cosmos, the measure. Plutarch said that, as a young man, Alcibiades "obeyed all his masters fairly well, but refused to learn upon the flute, as a sordid thing...." If we recall the Thracian maiden who played the flute for Plato when he showed her the measure, on the evening of the day on which he died, isn't that refusal of Alcibiades an extraordinary thing? In the Crito, Crito himself remarked that Socrates could also have been exiled to Thessaly, another wild place like Thrace. Crito's friends there would give Socrates complete protection and there they would make much of the philosopher. But of course, Socrates realized that in a Thrace or a Thessaly, the philosopher would be merely an oddity, a showpiece. He would have had no one with whom to speak. Socrates tells Crito that their long years of "serious discussion" have taught them both that "to do wrong is in every sense bad and dishonourable for the person who does it" (49).
In his last words in The Apology, Socrates spoke of death, of going to the Isles of the Blessed, where he would meet the gods and the heroes, where he would even meet Homer; the old quarrel between poetry and philosophy could be resolved. Even Socrates wanted to continue his conversation beyond death to find out who really is wise. When Plato dies, however, he does not, like Socrates, seem to anticipate this further conversation. What he seems to anticipate rather is the music, that is, the praise. We should spend our lives "singing, dancing, and sacrificing" (803). Plato does not, like Socrates, seek among the gods and heros to find him who is "really wise" and him who "only thinks that he is" (42). Plato understood the Alcibiades who refused to learn the flute. Plato did not refuse to listen to Socrates, the master flute-player.
Plato taught the Thracian maiden the nomos, the measure. Plato knew the flute. He taught her this measure the evening he died. The Thracian maiden did not laugh at him. He heard her play the flute. He knew the measure, that he was not the measure himself. "God is the measure of all things" (716). The Thracian maiden learned the measure. Philosophy, poetry, and politics are reconciled. In the Academy of Plato, we can still catch strains of the measure, even in any existing city, but only if we worry, like Socrates, about the demos, about the love that has no order.
In Book Ten of The Republic, after mentioning the "old quarrel between philosophy and poetry", Socrates admits that
"if poetry directed to pleasure and imitation have any argument to give showing that they should be in a city with good laws, we should be delighted to receive them back from exile, since we are aware that we ourselves are charmed by them. But it isn't holy to betray what seems to be the truth. Aren't you, too, my friend (Glaucon), charmed by it, especially when you contemplate it through the medium of Homer?"
"Very much so."
"Isn't it just for it to come back in this way -- when it has made an apology in lyrics or some other meter?" (607)
Eric Voegelin was charmed by the death of Plato. Philosophy, Voegelin thought, had fled to the Academy -- Plato's Academy not ours -- wherein poetry and the pleasure of music are received back no longer tainted by the polis using them for its own purposes. The apology in lyrics and in meter, in measure, are present in the music of the Thracian maiden playing the flute with the nomos that the dying Plato gave her. Plato died in full tune with the world and with its Measure.
A friend of mine happened to be in the Stanford Chapel at the Memorial Service of Eric Voegelin. My friend did not know who Voegelin was at the time, but he made a tape of this moving service. At this world-famous university only about forty people attended the service for Voegelin. Philosophy has fled even the academy. Voegelin seems to have chosen the music, Schubert, and the readings, from Ezekiel, from the First Letter of John, and from the Gospel of John. In his lovely eulogy of Voegelin, Ellis Sandoz remarked that the last time he saw Voegelin, a couple of months before he died, he had just ordered a new edition of Shakespeare's works, as the one he had been using was worn out. Voegelin tried to read the complete works of Shakespeare every year. The day before he died (January 18, 1985), Voegelin spent his time correcting some page proofs of his essay, "Quod Deus Dicitur", a proposition, he remarked, whose "specific form" comes from Thomas Aquinas. The very last word Voegelin ever wrote was "Plato".
On the day of Voegelin's death, a Psalm was read as he passed into unconsciousness. The Psalm was the Twenty-fifth. "Oh, keep my soul, O Lord, and deliver me: let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in Thee." Voegelin died peacefully while this Psalm was being read. As his wife was too weak and anxious, the Psalm was read to Voegelin by his American Indian housekeeper whose name was, with splendid paradox, Hiawatha.
All true philosophers, when they die, die the same death. All true philosophers when they die, die in the same city.
DEDICATED TO A UNIVERSAL PURPOSE: THE ANTIQUITY OF THE NEW WORLD
"A society, which was accustomed to understand itself in terms of a universal purpose, cannot lose faith in that purpose without becoming completely bewildered."
"Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?"
Benjamin Franklin was the American Emissary to the Court of Versailles in the late 1770's. At a state dinner, he listened attentively to the toasts of the leading dignitaries present. The British Ambassador proposed: "To George the Third, who, like the sun in its meridian, spreads a luster throughout and enlightens the world." Responding to this elaborate conception, the French Minister countered, "To the illustrious Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, sheds his mild and benignant rays on and influences the globe." The sharp Franklin, amused by the pretensions of these toasts, in turn rose to offer his own: "To George Washington, who, like Joshua of old, commanded the sun and the moon to stand still, and they obeyed him."
The ways of understanding our relationships to ultimate things are indeed varied. Yet, did we not stand with the British Ambassador and the French Minister under the same sun and moon on this very globe, we should not be delighted when a Benjamin Franklin, at a banquet of state, recalls the vanity to which we are all so often subject. Franklin, with his kite, was at home with the symbolism of the sun and the moon. The European diplomats knew about Joshua and the commanding of the sun to stand still. All three, whose combined domains already in their time were touching all the known continents, knew of political power, of universal kingdoms, and of the transcendent limits of rule.
The contemporary world, following a pattern the English Ambassador, the French Minister, and Benjamin Franklin himself all would have understood because already in their own day they each were representatives of it, is divided politically into some one hundred and sixty or seventy territorial units, usually called "nation-states." They each have flags, laws, songs, monuments to their noble deeds and their dead, institutions, police, poems, armies, and bureaucracies that prove and define their moral reality as well as their taxing powers. Interestingly, one hundred and sixty is about the same number of constitutions that Aristotle, who, for philosophical reasons, did not like large civic bodies, is said to have collected for his study of politics.
Some of these modern nation-states are roughly equivalent in size to Aristotle's city-states; others are about the area of the Alexandrine or Roman Empire. The original nation-states from the early modern period -- Portugal, Spain, England, France, and Holland -- remain in area more or less about the same size. The collapse of marxist hegemony has, apparently, allowed the older central European political entities from even before the territorial nation-state -- the Bohemians, the Slovakians, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Armenians, the Bulgars, the Croats -- to reclaim an independence they have never had or had for short, tenuous periods. Latin America and Africa appear to be formally modelled on the classic modern nation-state, both in size and theory. However much they claim an autonomous past and tradition, they recognize certain modes of rule that claim to be universal and therefore properly their own, no matter where initially formulated, even if it be Athens or London.
Political boundaries define ways of life. They must be taken more seriously than we might, at first sight crossing them with our documents, think. Visas and passports are not so much permits to enter as definitions of who are allowed to belong. The regime within each frontier has an explanation of itself that describes its own order, its own distribution of offices and personnel. This prevailing order, whether founded peacefully, by conquest, by session, by exploration, or by internal revolution, generally has its own claim to right or justice. This claim to an order of justice and intellectual legitimacy, for its complete formulation, usually reaches back beyond the boundaries of a nation-state, to religions, philosophies, and more recently ideologies that explain the regime to itself and before the nations. Man cannot live by fact alone. Even those regimes that are based on nothing more than power politics are aware of the argument of Thrasymachus in the First Book of The Republic, if not that of Hobbes himself, aware, that is, of a theory that maintains that might rules "by nature."
When Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence wrote, that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" requires the explanation of a country's actions to change its regime, he testified to our human need not merely to establish a new order but to justify its coming to be. This justification was to be formulated in terms that the other nations, that is, the listeners to reason to which all had access, could understand and approve. This "decent respect" by no means meant that the conditions of reasonable discourse were widely recognized or understood. It did mean, however, that there was a standard even if very few were willing to admit it or even understand it, let alone practice it.
The Muslim states of today look like territorial nation-states. Yet this political structure is not the immediate or full explanation of their way of life. Moreover, almost all nation-states, even England, France, Germany, Nigeria, Italy, and Canada, seem themselves to be historically imperial states that have absorbed, by force or by treaty, languages, dialects, smaller tribes and units into themselves. Those that have not successfully accomplished this internal unification, Russia may be the most graphic contemporary example, are in danger of falling apart. And indeed this breaking-up may not be a bad thing. What China may need more than anything is precisely a political theory that accepts that it is all right for a billion people to live in more than one nation-state. We have perhaps paid too little attention to the question that perplexed Aristotle, that is, "when is a state too large?" Wherever the nation-state goes, however, it carries its intellectual baggage with it, for better or worse. The nation-state's very existence keeps before our eyes the question of political philosophy of whether this sort of institution should be the primary mode of rule among men.
Whether the whole world can live in peace has been in the air since Caesar Augustus' famous decree. "World" wars are the dubious inventions of the Twentieth Century. Ancient, medieval, and modern international institutions, from the Papacy to the Holy Roman Empire, to Napoleon, the Hague Conventions and the League of Nations -- have sought to retain universality for a claim that the sovereign states were not simply antagonistic to each other as such. That the ultimate arbitrator of the nations' inevitable disputes would only be war has been denied in this universal tradition.
Yet, the threat of war, which each nation-state still maintains, stresses a kind of dogged realism. It recognizes that there may well be principles and threats among the nation-states that are incompatible with each other, incompatible with any sense or possibility of what is reasonable. At last glance, the world is not totally free of tyrants, while we still argue in our books about what a tyrant really is and what ought to be done about him. This argument is not a recent invention. Plato had taught us that the tyrant could well appear in a most attractive guise so that we all ourselves might just want to be one, were we to put on the ring of Gyges. Somehow, the rulers most dangerous and most subversive to the good were potentially the best and more often than not, the most intelligent. This observation was another heritage from Plato who suspected that our troubles lie mostly in our souls, not in our forms of rule. Few today furthermore are as brave as Aristotle to classify the nation-states in terms of virtue.
Whether the nation-state or any political organization is the body in which the highest things might be protected can itself be questioned. Indeed, it was questioned in the very foundations of political philosophy itself. The death of Socrates and the death of Christ, both executed according to legal procedures in the best actual regimes of their time, have served to make us suspicious of political institutions that claim something more than their due. Indeed, that states have "what is due to them" and therefore do not claim what is not due to them is the intellectual enterprise flowing out of the experience of Socrates and Christ.
From these two deaths, in fact, more than perhaps from any other source, has come the question, central to all human living, of the limits and nature of politics. We are familiar with the concept of a "new world" or a "new man" that was to be established once the corruption and disorders of the Old World were put behind. The noble savage found in the New World turned out to be, mostly, the invention of the philosophers. We are aware that human nature was carried not in books or in political traditions, but in the human heart itself, as St. Augustine had taught those fortunate enough to read The City of God.
The escape to a New World in order to form a New Man could not be entirely successful if, contrary to a tradition we attribute to Rousseau, what is wrong with us, or what is right with us, for that matter, does not lie in our institutions but in ourselves. This position would conclude that except at his peril no New Man or no New World can forget what the ancient world learned about man's condition. This realism was also the basis of a discourse about the highest things, the concern for which is what Socrates told us at his Trial ought to constitute our daily lives (38a). No new world could forget or reject this dialogue and simultaneously uphold the human condition.
The study of the classical tradition in the New World is not merely a question of historical record and fact. The Puritans who came to establish a "city on the Hill," as I take it, called it Boston, or somewhat farther afield, others called it New Hampshire, or New York or even New Jersey. A look around the historic globe still bears memories of a New Caledonia, a New France, a New Spain, a New Zealand, and a New South Wales. We even see the day when a Leningrad might again become St. Petersburg. And in how many North American states and provinces do we find an Athens, an Oxford, a Memphis, a Cambridge, a Rome, a London? There is even a Paris in Virginia that has a lovely little inn, and not much else.
We can look back at Cortez and Pizzaro and Ponce de Leon, furthermore, to think of them as primarily "military guardians" in Plato's sense out to expand power and glory, their own and that of their homeland. No doubt, there was much of this aggrandizement in their souls. Greed, cruelty, and corruption were known to them. Wherever the Europeans went, however, they also brought in addition to their own hearts, cities, books, schools, universities, churches, a desire to understand what they had encountered, and a determination not to lose what they had known. Hence, they compiled dictionaries, maps, and travel diaries, which Locke and Rousseau and Montesquieu read to illustrate their sometimes peculiar theories. The Europeans constantly translated and printed the Bible and often Euclid. They taught the local inhabitants their own European language and often were the first to codify the local ones.
As a memorable illustration of the perplexity and interest the Europeans had in the rest of the world, let me recall, it was the year 1733, the first book that Samuel Johnson translated and published. This was a French edition he had found by chance in Pembroke College in Oxford, of the Portuguese Jesuit Father Lobo's account of Abyssinia. "Contrary to the general vein of his countrymen," as Johnson put it with some asperity about the Portuguese in general, "(this particular Portuguese traveller) has amused his readers with no romantick absurdity, or incredible fictions." What Lobo recounted, Johnson thought, even if not exactly true "was at least probable," and that those "should believe him who cannot contradict him."
But what is of specific interest is Johnson's own assessment of Father Lobo's book, an assessment that is willing to find in what is not European the common titles of humanity. "The reader will here find no regions cursed with irremediable barrenness, or blessed with spontaneous fecundity," Johnson approvingly wrote of Lobo's book,
... nor are the nations here described either devoid of all sense of humanity, or consummate in all private or social virtues. Here are no Hottentots without religious polity or articulate language; no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all sciences; he will discover, what will always be discovered by a diligent and impartial inquirer, that wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason; and that the Creator doth not appear partial in his distributions, but has balanced, in most countries, their peculiar inconveniences by particular favours.
If there is a familiarity in the newly explored worlds, it is articulated because men like Johnson could find there examples of human nature that were familiar to them from their own experiences and readings in the antiquity of their own tradition.
Moreover, if we assume that Columbus himself set out to discover not the New World but the Old World of the Indies, and thereby caused the Portuguese to go East and South, not West, we might argue that the New World was rather a discovery of accident, not the product of any planning or purpose. All of these things -- glory, gold, and chance -- might well be factors in the relation of Europe to the Americas and the rest of the world. Yet, it was not only this accidental or often depressing heritage of encounter that is important. Indeed, the very understanding of what one meant by chance recalled a passage in Aristotle, what was greed something in the Commandments, and what was glory, Imperial Rome itself and even Machiavelli.
The Europeans knew that there were old and ancient civilizations, especially in the Orient, that often far surpassed them in wealth and power. They also were beginning to know that there were places of relatively little population or population of a quite disorganized or, to them, disordered sort. Unlike other civilizations, there was something peculiar within the West that impelled it to engage the rest of the world, not merely because it was there, but more particularly because there was something to be tested, something to be told. On the religious side this was called "good news," on the philosophic side, "truth." These are the words found in the Fifth Books of The Laws: "Of all the goods, for gods and men alike, truth stands first. Therefore, let every man partake from his earliest days, if he purposes to become blessed and happy, that so he may live his life as a true man as long as possible" (730C).
At the heart of European civilization was not a claim to be European but a claim to be universal. Though such a claim could be easily abused, in itself it was an outgrowth of the "wonder" that Aristotle found at the beginning of all thought and of the dialogue in which Socrates sought to engage each man capable and willing to listen to him. There was no way of life that was not to be tested by the questioning of its good; no discovery that was not examined for what it is. The society that closed itself off from this questioning and examining was one that refused to participate in what was essentially the human enterprise to find the truth that made men free.
Again this questioning and examining, at least into modern times, were not primarily based on a skepticism or doubt, though this skepticism or doubt too, itself ancient, had to be tested, and itself found doubtful. The civilization that wondered about all things and examined all things was the civilization that had sought to define, because it also knew their presence, evil and disorder. It sought its happiness in the troubled world that existed. As Eric Voegelin put it, "The idyll of unproblematic happiness is unworthy of man." Universal civilization includes, but does not justify, the sins of man. Indeed, universal civilization includes the question of whether there are "sins" at all, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Universal civilization includes both the question of what it means to live well and the question of what it means to think rightly. It thinks these two questions to be intimately related.
This background begins explain why the Europeans left their Old World and went to such efforts to discover, as they thought, the whole world itself and to see it as precisely a "whole" world. The Europeans held, in addition to the examples of Odysseus and Aeneas, that their civilization had two sources of inspiration that forbad them to rest content with their own part of the world. Looking back on this process, as we tend to do, with theories of exploitation and domination, themselves European, we can easily fail to see that there was perhaps something about this effort that need not be understood so harshly, something that could not be understood by reductionist theories of domination and exploitation at all.
In these years of self-doubt about the validity of its own culture, even when this culture seems to have convinced a good part of the world of its practical validity, we do well to recall the dense but profound passage in Leo Strauss's famous essay "Jerusalem and Athens," in which he compared Socrates and the prophets. What is peculiar to both Socrates and the prophets --and we might add to the New Testament -- is the notion of a universal mission that invites, at its best, the attention of all men. Here is how Strauss put the matter:
Socrates, as presented by Plato, had a mission; Plato did not claim to have a mission. It is in the first place this fact -- the fact that Socrates had a mission -- that induces us to consider, not Plato and the prophets, but Socrates and the prophets.
The three passages Strauss quoted were those of the missions of Isaiah. Jonah, and Amos. The most famous of these is no doubt that from Isaiah 6, when the Lord asked whom He should send, and Isaiah replied, "Here I am; send me."
In this context, we can also recall the similar passage at the end of the Gospel of Matthew in which the disciples are to go forth to baptize all nations and to teach the things that have been commanded to them (28:19). Some time later, as the Acts of the Apostles narrated, these same disciples witnessed the Ascension, only to be told immediately, that they were wasting their time standing there "looking up into the sky" (1:11). However much we might sympathize with the astonishment and curiosity of the disciples trying to figure out what was happening, the lesson was clear that they had something to do and they were to be about it.
Thus, on the side of the philosophers and on the side of the believers, whose interchanges are the principal causes of the particular vitality in the civilization in which both existed and in which both claimed universal purpose, there existed a mission, a belief, an understanding that what it was they were engaged in was intended for more than themselves. To find out if the Oracle was true, Socrates had to talk to each of those who claimed to be wise. In the long history of the world, we are inclined to look upon this mission with Hegelian eyes as an enormous effort to justify the evils and abuses that believers and philosophers, and the politics they inspire, have often enough brought into the world. Yet, Socrates, who never left Athens except to go to war or once to engage in a conversation about rhetoric and inspiration, did not ever think he should talk to any other person except one who was willing and able to listen to him examine himself daily about the highest things. Peter was told to put away his sword, lest he perish with it. But there were new things that he was to make known because they addressed the deepest meaning of every person. Had Socrates stopped conversing or Isaiah stopped volunteering or Peter stopped preaching -- dialogue and oratory -- the very heart of the universal civilization would have disappeared.
Whether the discourse about the highest things be found subsequently in the Academy with Plato or in the Church with Augustine or in the Synagogue with the Jews or in Paris with St. Thomas, is of no small moment. The universal civilization bore with it questions and questionings, understandings and clarifications, that had to be posed in order that mankind be itself. When St. Thomas came to write his Summae, he was careful to take every possible point of view with great seriousness. The Summae of St. Thomas can be read in many ways. But the most astonishing way to read them is to read the preciseness, clarity, and force with which St. Thomas presented the arguments against what he held to be true. If someone wants to find the most forceful arguments against the bases of reason or revelation, the origins of the universal civilizations understanding of itself, he can do no better than read the objections formulated by St. Thomas. Looked at from this angle, we can argue that the universal civilization is one that provides space for the articulation not merely of what is true but of what is not true. The complete understanding of anything includes the argument about why it might not be true.
In Book I, Chapter 9 of Rousseau's famous Social Contract, we read the following rather exasperated lines about the relation of the New World to the Old:
When Nunez Balboa stood on the shoreline and took possession of the South Sea and all of South America in the name of the Crown of Castile, was this enough to dispossess all the inhabitants and to exclude all the princes of the world? On that basis, those ceremonies would be multiplied quite in vain. All the Catholic King had to do was to take possession of the universe all at once from his private room, excepting afterwards from his empire only what already belonged to other princes.
This passage is taken from a Chapter whose title is "On Real Estate." It presupposes everything written on private property and civil sovereignty and includes the problematic of Rousseau's own theories.
Some fifty years after Rousseau wrote these lines, Hegel, in a Chapter of his Philosophy of Right, entitled "International Relations," observed:
When Napoleon said, before the peace of Campoformio, "The French Republic requires recognition as little as the sun needs to be recognized," these words simply meant that the French Republic was so strong through its mere existence, that recognition was vouchsafed for it, regardless of whether it was pronounced in words.
We have here a claim reminiscent of the speech that the Athenians made to the little Island of Melos during the Peloponnesian War, that it is according to nature that those who are stronger rule (Bk. 5, c. 7). In the case of Rousseau, contemplating the famous scene of Balboa claiming all of the South Seas, if not the entire universe, some theory must justify such a sweeping possession. Both of these claims, that of the superiority of might and that of the superiority of theory are found within the same tradition, the universal tradition. They are both found there as precisely theories to be tested against a standard of truth.
In 1517, Bernal Diaz del Castillo was sailing in the Caribbean with Francisco Hernandez. Leaving Cuba, the ships sailed West to the Yucatan, to Cape Catoche, to Campeche, which the Catalans called San Lazaro. There they landed fully armed as they had been ambushed at Cape Catoche. Some fifty Indians met them. The Indians invited the Spaniards to go to their town. "After some discussion," Diaz recalled, "we decided to go, but in good formation and very cautiously." When the Catalans got into town, they kept their eyes open. They saw something that horrified them. This is how Diaz described the scene:
They (the Indians) led us to some very large buildings of fine masonry which were the prayer-houses of their idols, the walls of which were painted with figures of great serpents and evil-looking gods. In the middle was something like an altar, covered with clotted blood, and on the other side of the idols were symbols like crosses, and all were coloured. We stood astonished, never having seen or heard of such things before. It appears that they had just sacrificed some Indians to their idols, so as to insure victory over us. However, many Indian women were strolling about most peacefully, as it seemed, laughing and amusing themselves....
Bernal Diaz and his companions simply could not comprehend this scene. They had just burst upon what was clearly an instance of human sacrifice, performed to ward them off. The ladies, who surely knew some of those sacrificed, were walking about afterwards amusing themselves. Surely, such a situation was very wrong. It was not sufficient to say such was the way the Aztecs do it in Mexico, they do it differently in Spain.
To see how the Spanish for all their astonishment sometimes did it in the New World, we can turn to Father Bartolome Las Casas. Las Casas recounted a sermon which the Dominican Fray Antonio Montesinos preached on the Island of Hispaniola in 1511. Las Casas dramatically described how Montesinos, the best preacher in the convent, mounted the pulpit. In the spirit of the Season -- it was Advent, the Sunday before Christmas when John the Baptist is recalled in the Gospels of the day -- Montesinos announced himself to be a voice sounding in the wilderness. Looking directly at the assembled officials of the Island and the Crown, he addressed them in the following words:
The voice declares that you are in mortal sin, and live and die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? ... Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? How can you lie in such profound and lethargic slumber?
If human sacrifice scandalized Bernal Diaz, human injustice scandalized Bartolome Las Casas. In both cases, the understanding and articulation of what was wrong came from the universal civilization. The commission of Isabella, the Queen, had been violated, justice was invoked, sin named, the love of neighbor commanded.
The antiquity of the New World implies that it belongs to that same discussion that was begun in Athens and Jerusalem and Rome according to which men were obliged to sort out, define, and live the highest things, even when they did not. Cicero sent his son Marcus to study in Athens. Cicero even wrote his memorable De Officiis for his son just before Cicero was killed. He wrote to his son, not the world's most diligent student, apparently. Yet Cicero's words were addressed also to us:
I should certainly have come to Athens myself, if my country had not unmistakably called me back when I was already on my way. If I had come, I am sure you would, from time to time, have given me your ear. Instead, I have to be represented by my voice: in the shape of these volumes. So do please give them as much time as you can .... And when I have heard that you are enjoying your study of these subjects, I hope we shall soon be discussing them together.
And what were the subjects of this most widely read and translated book of Cicero? They were justice and cooperation. Cicero told his son: "Integrity, generosity, and courtesy: these, and friendship too, cannot exist if they are pursued, not because they are desireable in themselves, but for the sake of pleasure and self-interest." Cicero, in other words, was arguing with the Epicureans, those same Epicureans about whom Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation, an argument within the universal civilization about human purpose.
The notion that it is possible to "dedicate" ourselves to a universal purpose, a purpose that includes the right order of soul, is a central notion of what it means to be civilized. We perhaps associate this term "to dedicate" with Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," in which he said that it was possible for a nation to "be conceived in liberty" and "dedicated to a proposition." This dedication was not an idea that came from nowhere. It had resonances that went back at least to the only Funeral Oration that rivals Lincoln's, and was no doubt its inspiration, namely that of Pericles.
"We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep the law...," Pericles explained.
Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.... Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous (Book II, Ch. 4).
"Famous men have the whole earth as their memorial," was Pericles' intimation that some things were not intended only for the Athenians, but for a civilization in which there were memorials dedicated to human dignity as such.
"Our notion of liberal education does not seem to fit an age which is aware of the fact that there is not the culture of the human mind, but a variety of cultures," Leo Strauss wrote.
Obviously, culture if susceptible of being used in the plural is not the same thing as culture which is a singulare tantum, which can be used only in the singular. Culture is now no longer, as people say, an absolute, but has become relative. It is not easy to say what culture susceptible of being used in the plural means. As a consequence of this obscurity people have suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that culture is any pattern of conduct common to any human group.
Since patterns of conduct can be contrary and contradictory to each other, this plurality-of-cultures position would mean that there is no universal tradition, no standard by which or in which every culture was to be examined. The universal civilization stood for this latter position as a conclusion of reasoned argument that addressed itself to every culture and therefore made it impossible for any particular culture to stand by itself intellectually as if this universal discourse did not exist.
Josef Och was a Jesuit missionary in Northern Mexico in 1767 when the Spanish king, Charles III, expelled the Jesuits from his territories. During the night, troops had surrounded the religious house and college. Opposition to this arbitrary action from townspeople was feared. The fathers, some ninety of then, for all their reputed shrewdness, apparently did not anticipate this move. All the Order's property was to go to the Royal Treasury. Och described the military action against him:
In the meantime, the greatest and first concern was to have books collected from all rooms and brought to the library. On this occasion I lost all the books I had brought with me to the Indies from Germany, Italy, and Spain, contrary to all laws and contrary tot he intent of the royal decree wherein it was ordered that none be deprived of his personal property. They left us only our breviaries and the little book of Thomas A'Kempis....
I cite this passage in part to notice that among other things, a German Jesuit, in Northern Mexico, in 1769, had with him the most widely published book next to the Bible perhaps of all time. By 1779, there had been 1800 different translations and editions of A'Kempis.
Chapter V of Book I of A'Kempis, the book Josef Och was allowed to keep in Mexico from his German collection, is entitled "About Reading Holy Scripture." Of the content of Scripture, A'Kempis advised, -- I cite an Edition of 1990 -- "By all means ask questions, but listen to what holy writers have to tell you; do not find fault with the hard sayings of antiquity -- their authors had good reason for writing as they did." The "hard sayings of antiquity" indeed ground the claim that the basic core of humankind remains the same throughout time and addresses itself to the same problems. The antiquity of the new world includes the hard sayings.
This antiquity also includes the warning that new ideas or ideologies may be more dangerous than old ones, that the universal civilization includes both memory and critical intelligence. Perhaps the most philosophical of the American Presidents, when he was still Vice-President, that is, John Adams, sensed the directions of some of the philosophies of his time. Such philosophies deviated within the tradition, in the very effort to correct it. Some fifteen years after Josef Och packed up his A'Kempis in Northern Mexico, Adams in a famous passage wrote cautiously in his Discourses on Davila as he tried to understand the dangers:
Let us conclude with one reflection more which shall barely be hinted at, as delicacy, if not prudence, may require in this place some degree of reserve. Is there a possibility that the government of nations may fall into the hands of men who teach the most disconsolate of all creeds, that men are but fireflies and that all is without a father? Is this the way to make man, as man, the object of respect? Or is it to make murder itself as indifferent as shooting a plover...?
Adams projected his thoughts into the future. If such a thing should happen, would not even the men of the Enlightenment, responsible for such ideas, have second thoughts?
In such an eventuality, "would not one of these most incredulous of all believers," as Adams called the philosophes,
have reason to pray to his eternal nature or his almighty chance (the more absurdity there is in this address the more in character) give us again the gods of the Greeks; give us again the more intelligible as well as the more comfortable systems of Athanasius and Calvin; nay, give us again our popes and hierarchies, Benedictines and Jesuits, with all their superstition and fanaticism, impostures and tyranny. A certain duchess (The Duchess d'Enville, the mother of the Duc de la Rouchefoucauld) of venerable years and masculine understanding, said of some of the philosophers of the eighteenth century admirably well, "On ne croit pas dans le Christianisme, mais on croit toutes les sottises possibles."
The gods of the Greeks, the comfortable system of Athanasius, even the "fanaticism" of the Jesuits, whom he did not particularly like, seemed more sensible to Adams than the newer philosophies he saw on the horizon. These philosophers in principle saw us little better than fireflies without a father, of no more worth than plovers shot in the early morning for game.
I began these remarks with Walker Percy's wondering why we know more about the Crab Nebula in Taurus than we do of ourselves, with Benjamin Franklin noting to the British and French Ministers that the sun and moon obeyed the prophet. Let me conclude with some further astronomical lines from the humorist Will Cuppy, from his book How to Get from January to December. For August 13th, Cuppy has this entry:
It seems the planet Mercury is in its perihelion today. That is, it is as near to the sun as it ever gets, or about 28,550,000 miles, instead of 43,350,000 miles, as it is in aphelion. Mercury's mean distance from us is 93,000,000 miles and its diameter is 3,100 miles. Isn't it strange that the farther away a thing is, the more we know about it? If you have never seen the planet Mercury, don't let it get you down. Copernicus never did, either, and he lived to a ripe old age.
Cuppy and Percy wondered about the same things. Cicero wrote an essay "On Old Age," based on an incident in the First Book of The Republic (328E ff.) Are the things we know about that Copernicus and Cicero, Plato and A'Kempis did not know the essential ones? The antiquity of the New World, I think, testifies that they are not.
"Wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason."
"Of all the goods of gods and men alike, truth stands first."
What does "possess the whole universe" that Nunez Balboa claimed and Jean-Jacques Rousseau questioned?
"The French Republic requires recognition as little as the sun needs to be recognized."
"We stood astonished, never having seen or heard of such things before."
"Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?"
"When I have heard that you are enjoying the study of these subjects, I hope we shall be soon discussing them together."
"The idyll of unproblematic happiness is unworthy of man."
"Famous men have the whole earth as their monument."
"Is there a possibility that the governments of nations may fall into the hands of men who teach the most despicable of all creeds, that we are but fireflies and all is without a father?"
"A society, which was accustomed to understand itself in terms of a universal purpose, cannot lose faith in that purpose without becoming completely bewildered."
The antiquity of the New World dedicates it to a universal purpose. This universal purpose does not deny the variety of nations or the newness of the new but it does deny that each old or new culture is immune from examination, first from a self-examination of its own soul and finally from an examination of those who possess that openness to truth and good news that formed in the first place the universal culture, the one culture.
A REFLECTION ON THE CLASSICAL TRACTATE ON TYRANNY:
THE PROBLEM OF DEMOCRATIC TYRANNY
"Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.... Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. ... (But)if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."
--John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 1991, #46.
In The New Yorker for July 10, 1995, The Discovery Channel, in conjunction with Forbes Magazine, featured a full page advertisement for a documentary entitled, "Happily Ever After?: The 20th Century Struggles for Democracy". Seven-eights of the page was in solid black with two questions strikingly visible in blood red lettering piercing through the midnight black ink. The print read, "Has mankind chosen democracy for good?" Then, "Or for now?" Was democracy, it was implied, the real answer to the perennial question about living happily ever after?
Beneath the black image were found but five lines of print. They read:
In the early 1900's, the world was at peace and democracy was ascendent. But a series of missteps led to devastating world wars and depression, culminating with the Cold War. The world in 1995 looks much the same as it did at the turn of the century. Will we get it right this time? Or are we destined to relive the mistakes of the past? Forbes Magazine examines America's pivotal role in shaping the course of this century and what it must do now to assure peace and freedom in the 21st century.
Needless, I do not cite this passage because of the subsequent fame of the publisher of Forbes Magazine. The advertisement does, however, touch on the issues that I want to discuss here.
What did strike me in particular about this ad was its failure even to name totalitarianism in the 20th century as anything but an innocent "misstep". "What an utterly neutral word," I thought on first reading it. Democracy, however, is pictured as a solution for mankind, evidently its best regime, though possibly only a temporary one. Does the world of 1995 look much the same as that of 1900? Is democracy in the ascendancy and if so, what sort of democracy? Dare we leave that word unexamined? The dire results of the first ascendancy, evidently, imply that democracy can fail. The second question implies that it can fail again, that it may only appear rarely in human history. Just why was the Cold War a culmination of these "missteps"?
And we wonder if America's "pivotal role" to insure "peace and freedom" in the next century is itself subject to another "misstep". It does seem strange to describe Nazism and Communism as "missteps", as if they were analogous to tripping over our feet and not, if I dare use that word, to sinning. "Why these morally neutral words on the Discovery Channel?" I wondered. Are "peace and freedom" equivalent to the words right and virtuous? Can we have, in other words, "peace and freedom" and also disordered souls? Can the 21st century, perhaps be worse than the 20th and if so, how? how intellectually?
The postulate of this reflection on the classical treatises about tyranny in political philosophy -- those of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas -- is that a new form of tyranny is developed in the late twentieth century. This contemporary form is post-classical as well as post-Marxist and post-fascist, albeit with grounding in classical, medieval, and modern theory. The location of tyranny is not, as in the classics, in the disordered soul of one or a few members of a ruling body. Rather it is located in the many, in the democratic form of rule itself and how it is understood. The problem, furthermore, is not exactly what we have come to call in the twentieth century "totalitarianism". The reason for this difference is that totalitarianism, though it had roots in will, was, though sometimes even popular, something imposed, a product of aberrant political art and enforced upon on a people contrary to their full understanding and choice. Totalitarianism usually had the connotation of "brainwashing" and coerced consent, of Rousseau's "being forced to be free". In the problem I wish to consider, however, we find at its heart voluntary and free choice, not coercion. Ironically, democracy in its modern usage has been most often proposed as the best regime, as the one form of rule that would most likely prevent this very tyranny or totalitarianism.
In order to understand the meaning of this new form, it will be helpful to recall the classical discussions of tyranny in order to locate, by contrast, the precise nature of this new form of tyranny. I shall here call this new form, even though it sounds contradictory, "democratic tyranny", because that seems the most accurate phrase. What I will note further, by way of irony, is that the nature and dimensions of this democratic form of tyranny are observed and described most often and most accurately by witnesses to the revelational tradition. Why this heightened perception from this source should be so is a cause of some intellectual perplexity, no doubt. However, I do not intend to argue that democratic tyranny necessarily needs revelation to understand its intelligible dimensions. But I do suggest that the recognition of this tyranny requires a kind of virtue and intelligence against which modern democratic theory in principle has frequently closed itself. It is the Church, not the polity nor academia, that has most often noticed what happens when "truth is determined by the majority," to use John Paul II's cogent phrase.
May I recall, as theme for these observations, the second reason that St. Thomas gave for why revelation might be necessary in addition to natural and human law? St. Thomas wrote that human judgment was uncertain, especially on contingent matters. People differ widely about the validity of human acts so that they also establish varying laws according to this difference. About this objective situation, St. Thomas concludes: "Ut ergo homo absque omni dubitatione scire potest quid ei sit agendum et quid vitandum, necessarium fuit ut in actibus propriis diregeretur per legem divinitus datum, de qua constat quod non potest errare" (I-II, 91, 4). In some sense, I want to suggest that on this issue and in the circumstances in which it is argued, that what we are seeing is the working out of this reasoning of St. Thomas about what it is concerning which we should not err.
To begin these reflections on tyranny, let me return to March 27, 1772, a Saturday, when, in London, James Boswell introduced Sir Adam Fergusson to Samuel Johnson. The topic of conversation, of some pertinence to our topic, was luxury and whether it destroyed "the spirit of liberty among the people," as Sir Adam put it. That luxury and dissipation weakened the civic polity was, of course, an old Roman theme associated with the names of Cato the Elder, Cincinnatus, and Cicero. Johnson, however, replied to Sir Adam with considerable liveliness and unexpected disagreement.
"Sir, that is visionary. I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. Sir, the danger of the abuse of power is nothing to a private man. What Frenchman is prevented from passing his life as he pleases?"
This view is not anarchism but rather suggests that even the worst abuse of power would not much affect the ordinary person who was already sure of the important things of life for the accomplishment of which he did not primarily depend on government, even were he French.
We note that these remarks were spoken some four years before the American Revolution and seventeen before the French Revolution, before the advent, that is, of governments that thought it proper to have a more active influence in our daily lives. On reading them, we cannot but be struck by Johnson's clear perceptions that ultimate questions of happiness and virtue do not directly or wholly depend on the regime in which one lives. Souls can be saved or lost in any regime, including the best and the worst. The form of regime in which we live is not among the most pressing of human problems and will not be that according to which we are ultimately to be judged. On this basis, we see, in our imagination, many an ordinary Frenchman passing his days as he pleases under even the most absolute monarch, as yet oblivious to what might happen to him when the Revolution finally did come.
When in this passage we hear Johnson speak of "a private man", no doubt we would be remiss not to recall that Socrates himself chose to be a private man because he knew, had he chosen a public life, that he would have been killed long before his famous Trial (#31). When our ultimate worth is to be evaluated primarily in terms of regime, of politics, we can rightly suspect that no transcendent criterion of human individual worth or happiness is at work in that society. If the Sabbath is made for man, are not regimes likewise so made? If truth is not to be determined "by the majority", to use John Paul II's phrase, how are we, in terms of political and legal philosophy, to describe those regimes that do determine truth by this very criterion?
Sir Adam, however, to return to his conversation with Johnson, pressed his modern position that made government more influential in determining human happiness. "But, Sir, in the British constitution it is surely important to keep up a spirit in the people, so as to present a balance against the crown." This notion of balance of powers seemed elementary to Sir Adam, as it does to us. The danger of tyranny came rather from a crown unevenly counter-balanced by an indulgent or dissipated people. The danger from an overbearing crown would be lessened by a people who were not sunk in luxury and vice.
But Johnson would have none of this constitutional argument.
Even more bluntly, Johnson replied to Sir Adam,
"Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the crown? The crown has not power enough. When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny, that will keep us safe under every form of government."
Was Johnson right about these things, we wonder? Was this what happened, so recently, to the Marxist world, that government power had been abused for long enough, that mankind ceased to bear it?
Do we not know more modern governments, including our own, with considerably more power than the eighteenth century British crown that, in retrospect, Johnson rightly saw had so comparatively little? Are there not governments that can impose majority will, whatever that will might decide? Are the pleasures of the Frenchman of today quite so secure under any form of government? And are we not regularly taxed in our form of government for sums that would make half a guinea look positively paltry? Who will rise up against what we ourselves voluntarily choose? Is there a remedy in human nature against a new sort of democratic tyranny, itself popular and voluntarily chosen?
Perhaps the most graphic re-phrasing of Johnson's point for our time was that brief moment at Harvard, in 1978, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke so soberly in the rain to its graduates. "Yet there is a disaster which is already very much with us," he explained to them, apparently uncomprehending and unprepared that his words would apply to them.
I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous irreligious humanistic consciousness. It has made man the measure of all things on earth -- imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, vanity, and dozens of other defects. .... On the way from the Renaissance to our day we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession, our spiritual life. ... If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die.
Solzhenitsyn, like John Paul II, had the unsettling habit of explaining to us that the intellectual foundations of the tyranny in the twentieth century were in fact also found at work in a perhaps more insidious fashion in the democracies and that we had not yet witnessed the wreckage they might cause. A form of tyranny is possible that is more dangerous than those already experienced in this century, which, in many ways, also claimed themselves to be democratic, to be for the people, to be socialist, and to be for the nation and, indeed, the whole world.
Communism, the great tyranny of our time, indeed, did fall, though it took seventy years, while more than one scholar wondered about the lethargy of the Russian people in tolerating it so long, in not cutting off heads sooner. The German tyranny also required other methods besides the more efficient cutting off the head of the abusive tyrant. The tyrant did commit suicide but evidently only in an effort to take everything down with him. We did not see the people rising up against this tyranny either. This fact too made many wonder if it was really possible to throw off modern tyranny as easily as Johnson implied about the crowns of the eighteenth century that lacked, as he noted, balanced power? Will this new form of democratic tyranny be even more difficult? Why?
A couple of decades ago, Leo Strauss had a famous debate with Alexander Kojève concerning Xenophon's Hiero, about this same question of whether classical and modern tyranny were the same. What was unique about these modern, early twentieth-century tyrants, in Strauss' view, was that they fancied themselves to be philosophers, inventive thinkers capable of conjuring up a new and more dangerous form of tyranny in the name of mankind's well-being. The classical tyrants, by comparison, seemed almost friendly types, men interested in the trade of tyranny because they had no other interest except their own glory. They were intelligible in ordinary terms of vanity and self-interest, whereas the more recent tyrants were concerned about changing the world, improving it, finding fresh models and organizations that would, by human political or economic means, actually eradicate evil. There was often something almost mystical about such endeavors.
I was thinking of this issue when I ran across a passage by the British historian, Paul Johnson. Johnson had given a lecture at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, in which he deplored, as contrary to the very notion of the American founding, such terms as "African American" or "Native American" or "Anglo American". At one point during Johnson's lecture, however, a black gentleman in the audience stood up to "make a statement", as he put it. The man announced that at one time he had considered himself to be an "American". Then he became a "black American". He next thought himself to be an "African American". Finally, he decided he was just an "African". Affirming this, the man sat down amid some silent embarrassment.
Johnson did not respond but tells us what he wanted to say but did not out of "deference to my delightful and generous hosts". This is Johnson's suppressed response:
Here is another statement of fact. There are more than 50 black African countries, and I have visited most of them. Without exception, they are poor, badly -- sometimes savagely -- governed, and becoming more so. All their inhabitants, except the tiny ruling elites, which exploit their possession of power, would give anything for the privilege of being American citizens and calling themselves just 'Americans'. If the speaker wants to be an African, why doesn't he go and live there and see how he likes it?
We don't always say what we think; we don't always call oligarchies and tyrannies what they are.
When I read that passage, I thought: Were Paul Johnson a citizen in any of those fifty countries, he would probably have put his life on the line to have said in public what he thought in the Pierpont Morgan Library. If we read Aristotle, his effort to insist that the function of political science is to describe accurately the regime we are talking about or living in, it becomes clear that the most dangerous thing we can do sometimes is precisely that, to state accurately what sort of regime it is under which we live.
Had the black gentleman from the Pierpont Morgan Library gone to Africa to become a citizen in any of the countries of Johnson's description, would he have been able with impunity to have reversed the statement to end up with "and now I am just an American"? Probably not, but we dare not imagine such things too much in politicized democratic societies. One suspects it sometimes takes more courage for a black man to say today that he is an "American" in our midst than to say that he is an "African", even though he has never been there and probably would not stay if he were. We find, in fact, no significant immigration of black Americans to Africa.
And yet, I am arguing here that the cultural climate in this country, to which any African might want to immigrate if he could, has something about it much more dangerous than the sorts of classical tyranny and oligarchies that we might find in other parts of the world. Samuel Huntington, as I recall, once argued that the formulations of Aristotle about regimes were in fact still the best ones to understand the forms of rule in the Third World. Probably, the heads of tyrants in many places could still be actually cut off, to recall Samuel Johnson's memorable phrase.
When we read them today, what is interesting about the classical treatises on tyranny, on the worst regime, is the description of the tyrant himself. We are somewhat startled. We tend to think that the most dangerous tyrants are ugly and nasty characters, easily recognized, rather "savage", as Johnson said. But if we read Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, it does not seem that tyrants are this way at all. If we take Plato's two most dangerous tyrants, Callicles and Alcibiades, for example, they turn out to be very intelligent, shrewd, perceptive, and handsome men. They are rather charming in most ways. They are eloquent, love the people, and are even sometimes willing to discipline themselves, their wives, and staffs in the name of their own good.
Modern tyrants, in Strauss' sense, seem rather to be philosopher kings gone wrong, men who seek to impose on reality their inner view of the whole world. This zeal incites their ruthlessness when reality does not allow them what they want, when they realize they are not omnipotent. Aristotle, in his examination of the tyrant, even described how the worst sort of tyrant could stay in power. He would have no friends, only lackeys and fellow excitement seekers, all radically dependent on him. He could trust no one. He had to lop off the heads of anyone who seemed to have virtue or even outstanding ability. Everything had to be kept in public. People had to be taken care of and kept busy with public works, with bread and circuses. This sort of tyrant was in a pretty precarious position. Even though he was a tyrant and ruled for himself alone, still his tyranny was exhausting and doubtfully successful over a long period of time.
A second sort of tyrant could be conceived. He perhaps would be more secure, even though he also ruled for himself, for his own glory and prestige. He would give the people what they wanted, rather than fear them. This is the tyrant who craftily imitates the good king. Such a tyrant finally realizes, after perhaps an unfortunate and dissolute youth, that he cannot abuse the wives and daughters of his citizens. He learned to live a rather sober life, to keep at least plausible accounts of his income and expenditures. He has to be affable and appear to be taking care of everyone. His shrewd pragmatic sense guides him to stay in power by staying popular.
What is remarkable to our modern way of thinking is that, for the classics, the tyrant came to power usually out of a democracy. Plato's description of the way the shrewd and bronzed young man arises in a democracy is both powerful and even charming, however ominous. What surprises us in reading these descriptions is that the democracy, echoing both Thucydides and Plato on Pericles, almost wants and needs the rise of this tyrant for its own unexamined ends. Why so? The word democracy today in one sense has almost lost its meaning. It can mean the best regime; it can mean a regime of law, of the people, of the majority, almost never does it have a content, only a process. Morality is majority.
For the classical authors, however, democracy was the best of the worst regimes. It was a regime of "liberty", in which liberty or freedom meant not just rotation in office. It implied rather a lack of any objective judgment about right order in the souls of the citizens. There was no "right" sort of life. Everyone followed what he pleased. Rule meant letting everyone do what he desired. Choice and unrestricted desire were the law, the end of the regime. Since this sort of regime had no criterion of order, it could not, as Plato tells us, tell the difference between a fool and Socrates. Socrates seemed hopelessly odd to the democratic regime. The most dangerous thing that could happen in such a regime was to claim that there was virtue, a right order of life, to claim that not all forms of life were equally good simply because they were chosen.
Plato sees the tyrant rising out of this open moral environment. The tyrant is tempted by the philosopher, likes to think the philosopher is beholden to him, likes the prestige compliant intellectuals give him. The tyrant, in fact, loves philosophy, enjoyed, as Callicles tells us in the Gorgias, his philosophical studies when he was in college. As a more mature man, however, he cannot abide the philosopher's questions about his conduct. He must act. He must rule with no impediments or scruples. He cannot be bothered by fine distinctions between right and wrong. He still loves the prestige of conversation with the philosopher and poet. But he cannot be hindered by it. When the philosopher causes him some scruple, the appealing tyrant may hesitate but only briefly until he sees if the people also hesitate. In the end, he takes his cue from what the people want at any given moment. He hates not to be loved and admired. He has no principle of his own except what the people want, something he constantly seeks to know. His position changes from one day to the next according to his perception of the people's wants.
Alcibiades, that attractive, intelligent, and unscrupulous young tyrant, tells us how the siren of the people guides him. However much he is charmed by the philosopher, he wants to be loved by the people more. He changes with what he perceives the people to desire. The people want anything and everything. They themselves are undisciplined. By his promises, the tyrant enslaves them in their own wants and longings because he has himself no other wants except what they want, though he does love to be praised and to be admired. This is his existence.
The democratic regime begets the tyrant who carries its own lack of discipline to its ultimate disorder. This relationship of ruler to ruled is not initially at least hostile. The only opposition arises from those who have a sense of stable order and virtue, of truth and good. These latter are seen to be opposed to liberty, to what the people want. The tyrant himself has no inner soul. His soul constantly seeks what the undisciplined people want, not what is right. He dare not oppose what gives him his own meaning. His own power is, he senses, secured by his own lack of inner principle, by his own willingness to accomplish what the people fear to carry too far. He becomes their leader in disorder. He is their conscience, their soul and they his. Since he is attractive, eloquent, popular, since he does what they would aspire to do if they could, their wishes and desires seem to be reaffirmed; he envisions himself as a public servant, a protector of the poor, the weak, the disadvantaged.
Such are the classical tractates on tyranny. The great political philosophers of the twentieth century, now closing, have sought to analyze and explain what early on appeared to be a new form of tyranny, one that the ancients could not have imagined. The ancient tyrant simply sought to order everything to his own will, to his own desires, but he himself had no other desire other than to be popular. Marsilius of Padua, in the late Middle Ages, thought that the cause of tyranny was something that Aristotle could not have known, namely, the Christian priesthood, something that seemed to set limits on the power of the state. The modern tyrant, however, has demanded our thoughts and our souls, demanded that his ideas be put into reality not just for his good but for the good of all humanity. No other kind of good, divine or human, existed but that of the tyrant's mind.
The questions that arise, on the apparent downfall of modern ideological tyranny of the Marxist type, are twofold. Can this same tyranny come back in the form of what has been suspected in modern thought but never really discussed, that is, in the form of a democratic tyranny? Or is what we witness the rise of simply classical, popularly elected tyrants, those who will pander to our wants, who want only praise and glory but who have no ideological agenda, who only want a democratic "liberty" that has no principle but itself, no content or no principle?
The most dangerous political activity, to repeat, is to describe accurately and in principle the form of regime in which we live and the ends of the souls, including our own, that go to make up that regime. We do not have to go to Africa to appreciate the seriousness of this problem. Let me recall that Socrates said that there were only two regimes in which the philosopher could live, in that regime that was built in speech and in a democracy. The reason why Socrates lived seventy years in a democracy was that the citizens were unable to distinguish between a fool and a wise man. As long as Socrates remained a private citizen, nothing happened to him. In the new form of democratic tyranny, as I understand it, no one can remain simply a private citizen, for the citizens are the choosers and, as it were, the philosophers. The tyrant depends on them for his very tyranny.
At this point of my argument, I wish to make a transition from political philosophy to revelation addressing itself to political philosophy. Linus is standing with his eyes closed holding a sign bearing the word "Prophet". Lucy is angrily seen at the television set changing channels. Linus, the Prophet, sits to the side with his blanket, sucking his thumb, saying to her, "Is that all you ever do, watch repeats?" She snaps, "Buzz off." To this put-down, the Prophet loudly "sighs". Lucy, looking intently at repeats, tells him to "stop that stupid sighing." The Prophet, however, maintains that "there is nothing wrong with sighing". Lucy retorts, "There is if it bugs someone."
Still sucking his thumb and holding his blanket, Linus replies triumphantly, "it's scriptural". Startled, Lucy yells, "It's what?" As she looks at him, Linus is now transformed, standing up, no blanket, finger pointed in the air to make a point. He directly cites the following passage: "Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." Linus briskly turns away from a flabbergasted Lucy now sitting forlornly on the floor and calmly says, "Romans -- Eighth Chapter."
In the last scene, Lucy, lips closed and turned down, is grimly looking at the television set, while saying to herself, "I don't know, ... I'm either going to have to slug him, or start going back to Sunday School." Lucy's alternative, slugging or Sunday School, seems more or less where we are on this issue of democratic tyranny, or perhaps to understand the slugging, the intentions of the coercive state, we might just need Sunday School, that is, revelation to see what we are about.
I want to begin this latter consideration by citing a paragraph from Joyce Little's book, The Church and the Culture War, because it combines the American, classical, and revelational traditions into one succinct statement about the problem of democratic tyranny:
The United States of America has often been portrayed as a beacon of light in a dark world of tyranny -- and to a large extent that has been true over the past two hundred years. But the United States in particular and the West in general are in grave danger of succumbing to the forces of tyranny themselves. A new notion of freedom as the right to do whatever one wishes now endangers our societies, leading to the rejection of all authority, the assertion of the right to define good and evil for ourselves....
This passage recalls Solzhenitsyn at Harvard. It again founds the problem in a theory of will that has no objective grounds for its direction.
On November 6, 1992, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was inducted into the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of the Institute of France. The German Cardinal, the Prefect of the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith, was chosen in place of the late Russian scientist, Andrei Sakharov. The format of this Induction consists, among other things, of a brief lecture by the new inductee reflecting on his predecessor in the Academy. The topic Ratzinger chose was in fact our topic here, namely, the nature of contemporary democracy. What is of particular interest is how Ratzinger interpreted the problems with human dignity that Sakharov stood for. "I also think that the threats against humanity, which had become concrete political forces of destruction with the domination of the Marxist parties, continue to exercise a certain influence today under other forms." Again we have the suspicion that democratic tyranny may in fact be the logical extension of ideas already in existence, ideas that have resulted in other forms of modern tyranny.
Ratzinger states the problem very precisely:
Freedom requires that governments and all those who bear responsibility bow before that which presents itself as essentially defenseless and is incapable of exercising any coercion. At this level is situated the threat posed by modern democracy.... It is difficult to see how democracy, which rests on the principle of majority rule, can enforce moral values that are not recognized by a majority without introducing a dogmatism that is foreign to its nature.
This phrase, "the threat posed by modern democracy" is precisely what we are considering here. Ratzinger located the problem with those who are essentially defenseless before the principle of majority rule among those who do not recognize the good.
The issue is stated bluntly by the German Cardinal:
Freedom can abolish itself, become sick of itself, once it has become empty. This too we have experienced in our century: a majority decision can have the effect of destroying freedom. ... Strict positivism, which expresses itself in absolutizing the principle of the majority, will inevitably revert at some time into nihilism.
The reversal to nihilism is at some level where we are intellectually in a democracy with majority rule that serves as a principle to determine what is right and wrong.
G. K. Chesterton wrote Heretics at the beginning of the twentieth century in 1905. The second chapter of this book was called "On the Negative Spirit." This is the famous chapter in which Chesterton pointed out that we cannot talk about progress unless we have something stable towards which we are moving. We cannot start out and just go anywhere. Already, in 1905, Chesterton noticed that a "great silent collapse" and disappointment had fallen on what he called "our Northern civilization." All previous generations had striven and even "been crucified" to realize "what is really the right life, what really is the good man."
Chesterton observed that in modern civilization "a definite part of the modern world" had come to the conclusion that there are "no answers to these questions." The only thing we can do is to inform others that there are dangers ahead, to warn people "not to drink themselves to death" or to remind them of "the existence of their neighbors." Chesterton thought that all the modern phrases like liberty, progress, and education were merely dodges to avoid asking the question "of what is good". In a memorable passage, Chesterton summed up the consequences of these views, a passage which I cite here because it says, at the beginning of the Century, pretty much what John Paul II has been saying at the end.
"The modern man says, 'Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty,'" Chesterton continues.
This is logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it." He says, "Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress." This logically stated, means, "Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it." He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education." This, clearly expressed, means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children."
The danger of democratic tyranny lies in precisely the inability to recognize what is good and what is evil. Why this sort of tyranny is denominated precisely "democratic" is because it is based on a theory that denies that there is any good. It makes this denial of objective good the essential foundation of democracy, the prime motive for action in human life.
No one has more clearly analyzed the dimensions and nature of this disappointment in the Northern civilization better than John Paul II. Like Solzhenitsyn and Chesterton, he is not an opponent but an advocate of democracy, but of democracy seen as a means to effect what we already know to be true and to achieve what we know to be good. In several of his recent writings, particularly in Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II has addressed himself very seriously and directly to the problem of democratic tyranny. He is quite clear about the meaning of this phrase and its philosophical foundations. The Holy Father sees quite clearly that the life issues in particular as they are let forth in legal and constitutional terms in modern democratic states are based on a form of democracy that admits in principle a philosophic relativism and a definition of what is good that depends solely on majority rule.
The third Objection in St. Thomas' very first question in his famous "Treatise on Law" cited the famous phrase of the Roman Law, that "whatever the Prince wishes, has the force of law" (I-II, 90. 1. Obj. 3). In essence, John Paul's analysis of democratic tyranny is an application of St. Thomas' discussion of this very point. There are things that are objectively evil, the prohibition of which is always in the interests of human dignity. What is unique in the current analysis is the application of this principle to democracies themselves, since in modern times, it has been assumed that the people would always recognize evil actions in practice and prohibit them in their legal enactments.
What is unique about modern discussions connecting democracy and "rights" to abortion or euthanasia or other connected issues is that "the present-day attacks on human life ... consist in the trend to demand a legal justification for them, as if they were rights which the state, at least under certain conditions, must acknowledge as belonging to its citizens" (Evangelium Vitae, #68). Such "rights talk", to use Mary Ann Glendon's phrase, is what grounds democratic morality. If the rights belong to the individual, then doctors and other personnel can assist the implementation. Or deformed children are said to be only "relative" goods. A certain proportional evaluation would enable a more liberal interpretation. A Circuit Court even has compared assisted suicide to Christian martyrdom, such is our confusion.
The Pope then cites what looks at first sight to be another argument from St. Thomas now turned upside down. "Civil law cannot demand that all citizens should live according to moral standards higher than what all citizens themselves acknowledge and share." The law then should only embrace what the majority can support. If we do not have legal rights to abortion or euthanasia, then, we will have illegal ones. Laws that cannot be enforced would lead to general lawlessness, it is said.
A more radical version of these arguments, the Pope points out, maintains "that in a modern and pluralistic society people should be allowed to dispose of their own lives as well as of the lives of the unborn." This is where we are, isn't it?
The Holy Father then begins carefully to analyze the essential thought of modern democracy in making these justifications. "In the democratic culture of our time it is commonly held that the legal system of any society should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the conviction of the majority" (#69). Morality is to be based on what "the majority itself considers moral and actually practices." Thus, if the majority is equivalent to the Roman Law's prince, we can see that we have a law theory based on pure will presupposed to no criterion but many wills.
One way to justify this position is to suggest that "truth shared by all is de facto unattainable." The position that there is no truth or no truth that can be recognized thus becomes the intellectual grounding for the right of the majority to establish what is to be done or allowed. What we do when we allow euthanasia or abortion, then, is to "respect the freedom of the citizens -- who in a democratic system are considered the true rulers...." The legislative level of making this respect viable and legal is seen merely as respecting "individual autonomy." Then, in a most penetrating phrase, the Pope summarizes this position: "Consequently, when establishing those norms which are absolutely necessary for social coexistence, the only determining factor should be the will of the majority, whatever this may be." Individual politicians thus will separate his private and public conscience on this basis. The will of the majority, "whatever this may be", thus becomes the principle of rule. The only source of law is law itself. "Individual responsibility is thus turned over to the civil law, with a renouncing of personal conscience, at least in the public sphere."
John Paul II sees that the basis of such positions is "ethical relativism", that there is nothing objective which might oblige the conscience of all. He next connects this relativism with contemporary theories of democracy (#70). Democracy is said to guarantee tolerance and mutual respect by not interfering with another's will, whatever it might be. Objective crimes are, thus, being committed in the name of this ethical relativism The Pope is blunt about what this theory implies: "When a parliamentary or social majority decrees that it is legal, at least in certain circumstances, to kill unborn human life, is it not really making a tyrannical decision with regard to the weakest and most defenseless of human beings?" Here we have it in so many words, a parliamentary or democratic tyranny.
"Democracy cannot be idolized to a point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality." Democracy is a means not an end and it takes its judgment of right and wrong not from some decision of a majority, but from what is right. "The value of a democracy rises or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes." The Pope sees the possibility of obscuring the conscience of the public to such an extent that the democratic system would be merely balancing popular interests. If there is no content to democracy, then it merely becomes an "empty word" embodying anything it chooses.
The Pope distinguishes between sound and spurious democracy, the first must be based on the truth of what is and fashion itself to promote and protect the reality of human life in all its forms. The civil and the moral law must be reunited (#71). There are rights which the civil law must grantee. Even if the majority chooses it, this law cannot embrace something against a fundamental right of an individual person, for it is to this good that the state is designed. There is no distinction between what the civil law can do and what the individual can do in some Machiavellian sense. The only time that it is possible to legislate is in the case of a lesser good when laws are gradually being tried to be more restrictive(#73).
Basically, the Holy Father repeats St. Augustine's position that an unjust law is no law (#74). No one furthermore is to cooperate in unjust laws. "To refuse to take part in committing an injustice is not only a moral duty; it is also a basic human right." The Holy Father has recognized here the enormous pressure to conform to unjust laws that a democracy can exert on its members. Once something unjust becomes a legal "right", it also becomes a "duty" to effect it. The widespread diffusion of "rights" based on unjust laws does, in a democracy, bring the very core of this disorder of soul into the hearts and homes of almost every member of a society. The tyranny is no longer merely external but part of the very definition of our inner priorities.
Socrates had first maintained that it is never right to do wrong, that he would not participate in any action, like the arresting of Leon of Salamis, that involved him in doing wrong, that death is better than doing wrong. We have here at the beginning and at the end of our tradition the same teachings. Socrates and John Paul II substantially maintain the same thing for the same reason. Their arguments still hold. What is new is not the principle, though that is under attack as it was in the time of Socrates. We still hear, as did Socrates, that what is right is what is might. What is right is what is popular. What is right is what necessary for rule. What is new, though neither Plato nor Aristotle would have been too surprised at it, is rather the recognition of the extent to which tyranny can reach into the souls of members of a democracy.
What, in conclusion, are we to conclude from this reflection on the tractates on tyranny? We notice that Socrates did not leave Athens. He stayed in the democracy. He did not accept banishment nor did he flee to Thrace where there was no law. Two principles seem to be the guiding ones in a polity that has embraced by its philosophy, law, or custom practices that are evil. The first is, never ourselves to do this evil, never let it corrupt our own souls to send us off seeking theoretic justification for what we in fact do. The second is, never to cease the effort to identify and to define what this evil is and to state clearly what it is, to call it by its real name. These principles seem to be the ones that John Paul II advises us to follow.
The comparison of our predicament with the sudden demise of Marxism is instructive. Few but the Holy Father saw the inherent weakness of what appeared to be a well-fortified political system. Things that cannot work, however, do not work. Or to put it better, the evil side of things corrupts our souls. This evil, to the extent that each accepts it, is working itself out in the souls of our kind. The arguments to kill our kind in its inception and at its end, in our most weakened stages, if accepted, will also kill us in the middle between these extremes.
But the argument does not hold. The mission of the academic is precisely the argument. The mission of the cleric or the politician is the action, forgiveness, correction, innovation. We can and do choose our version of democratic tyranny, our theories both justify and follow our actions. Our law can justify even this form, evidently. Why the revelational authority remains especially important to us in the structure of our daily lives is because it has not allowed our actions or our theories go without examination and warning. Today, it is possible that we all manifest in our lives the souls of Alcibiades and Callicles. That is to say, we are left with our popularity and our power, but not our principles. The mission both of reason and revelation, it seems, is never to allow us to rest on anything less than the truth that makes us free to choose only the good.
ARISTOTLE: RELIGION, POLITICS, AND PHILOSOPHY
The root cause of the vagaries of modern philosophy -- and perhaps ... the reason for my dissatisfaction with philosophy as a profession -- I now believe to lie in the divorce of philosophy from theology.
If the gods give any gift at all to human beings, it is reasonable for them to give happiness also; indeed, it is reasonable to give happiness more than any other human good, in so far as it is the best of human goods.... But even if it is not sent by the gods, but instead results from virtue and some sort of learning or cultivation, happiness appears to be one of the most divine things, since the prize and goal of virtue appears to be the best good, something divine and blessed.
-- Aristotle, Ethics, 1099b11-18.
Aristotle's scientific account of the best form of government or "best regime" in the Politics deserves serious reconsideration today because ... it brings to light a nearly forgotten but hardly settled dispute between reason and faith as to what the best way of life and its political embodiments are. In brief, can human beings by their own lights discover the good life, or are they necessarily dependent on the divine to reveal this to them?
Marsilius of Padua in his Defensor Pacis (I, 8) understood Aristotle to have presented political things properly except that the Greek philosopher could not have foreseen the disruptive forces that the Christian priesthood in particular would have in the public domain. The best way to handle this problem, Marsilius thought, was simply to declare that spiritual things had no external effect but represented purely private or abstract matters. Reduced to the internal realm, spiritual things could not interfere with the polis in its pursuit of its own common good, a common good Marsilius thought he found in Aristotle. Reason was the realm of the naturally political and the philosophical, not something belonging to both natural and supernatural realms in a non-contradictory way as it had been for St. Thomas.
For Marsilius, the solution to the political problem was to declare all questions of supernatural life or the transcendent highest good to be worthy but irrelevant aspects of the ordinary life of citizens. "Defending the peace" came to mean, as it later would in a more graphic way with Machiavelli and Hobbes, subordinating the presence of both faith and speculative philosophy to politics. Peace resulted, not from accord in truth, but from depriving speculative matters of any legal relevance. Since philosophy and religion were said to be the major causes of disruption in actual regimes, they could not be permitted a position higher than politics. The classic standards by which the practical was to be related to the theoretical were "lowered" to prevent any clash between contemplation and politics. Marsilius' Aristotle was thus deprived of that primacy of theoretical to practical life found initially in Aristotle himself and on which the integrity of Aristotelian politics itself depended.
Aristotle did, of course, have a place for priesthood in his polity and considered the legislation for the common public liturgies to be a normal political function (1328b1-5; 1331b3-5). Aristotle's priesthood was not, like his philosopher, immediately ordered to the ends of being, to knowing all things. Theoretic philosophy was superior to the civil gods who were depicted by the poets to do many irrational things. The polis did, however, have a duty to the gods that seemed to be more than just a function of civil religion discretely designed to keep the masses busy and content because they could not themselves be philosophers. But since man was a political being by nature, it was not necessary for achieving these natural ends to resort to the gods to acquire additional information about what to do in the polity or how to arrive at the conditions for living a good life. The virtues could be acquired by practice and discipline. Laws could guide and, if necessary, coerce actions that would lead to virtue or at least prevent greater harm.
The dignity of the ethical and political order seemed self-contained once the metaphysical order in philosophy was also understood. That is, ethics and politics, which were two aspects of the same over-all moral life, had their relative autonomy and purpose. The objects of both practical sciences, ethics and politics, were human actions insofar as they ought to come forth from human prudence and choice. Man ought to rule himself and his community in the right times and places. Moral and political life indicated aspects of reality that needed to be treated separately because they were unlike activities of the speculative sciences. These practical human actions could be otherwise. They owed their existence to human knowledge and choice seeking to do or make something in conformity with man's chosen end, insofar as he sought happiness. We could not expect more certitude in these areas than the subject matter allowed (1094b13) Even though he was quite aware that men for the most part did not act morally and rightly in their deeds, still Aristotle argued in the case of the best man that he could accomplish his ends through his own powers. He could acquire the proper habits by using his intellect and power of choice on ends properly understood according to what human beings were, neither gods nor beasts. Human beings were unique beings in the cosmos. They were the microcosmoi, the beings with something of all the grades of being in them.
Many kinds of regime, organized according to the respective numbers and purposes of the ruling element, did in fact exist. These actual regimes reflected the relatively ordered or disordered status of the souls of the citizens who composed them. But none of these existing regimes could be classified as the best regime. The variety of differing actual regimes indicated that it was at least possible by comparison to wonder about the best regime. The best regime, however, had a particular function, as Aristotle had learned from Plato. It kept to the forefront the primacy and intelligibility of human good and purpose that was not in fact realized in actual polities. The acknowledged defects of all actual regimes, including the good ones, did present a serious intellectual problem. Aristotle did think it was possible to speak of a "best regime" provided this best regime were conceived to be a regime composed of finite mortals. Even if the theoretical life is more "divine" than human life and even though Aristotle advised us to prefer the divine to the human, no matter how difficult it was (1178a1), still this high level of philosophic life would not be easily attained and, if attained, only by a few.
It was this position about the relatively few philosophers among us that caused Aristotle to be called an "elitist. Interestingly, it was the claim of revelation to address itself to all men, even the non-philosophers, that made medieval Christian philosophers think that revelation was in some sense "necessary" as a correction to the limits of natural philosophy. Modern political philosophy, in its turn, has sought to attain these exalted levels of well-being for everyone not by philosophy or revelation but by lowering the standards of human activity. Medieval political philosophy answered the same problem by elaborating carefully how revelation was in fact addressed to all men, even the imperfect (I-II, 91, 4). The sources of virtue and good life were available in revelation to others than the philosophers. The purpose of these revelational resources (grace, sacraments) was not directly political in the Aristotelian sense nor were these resources necessarily designed to change the definitions of the virtues as Aristotle understood them.
Aristotle himself recognized that there were regimes that might be, relatively speaking, "best" for this or that local political situation or for a polity composed of this or that type of citizen. But he also asked whether the best man and the best regime might not require one another? What was, in fact, the highest kind of life, the life of the politician or the life of the philosopher? Aristotle recognized that the life of the politician, the life devoted to political prudence and to honors, while it was a good life, contained many troubles (1177b12). Its very absorption in a myriad of affairs indicated that it would not by itself allow the leisure that was the hallmark of the philosopher who was primarily interested not in the changing things of ordinary politics but in the higher things, the things that could not be otherwise. Human life by itself continually manifested a recurrence of what Aristotle could only call "wickedness" (1267a42). Thus, it would be quite unlikely that most regimes would be good or that most philosophers, assuming their own souls to be in order, would find conditions suitable for their successful pursuit of the theoretic life.
Aristotle did not identify the politician and the philosopher as Plato had done. The very fact that he separated them indicated that he understood the different requirements for each sort of life. But this difference did not mean that the two lives were not somehow interrelated. The undisciplined politician could kill the philosopher. The good of the polis itself, however, required the existence of the philosopher. Politics was not the highest science as such, only the highest of the practical sciences. Without attention to the theoretical sciences, the ends of politics could not be secured. On the other hand, all lives in the polity, including the philosophical life, were to be considered in terms of the ends of the polity and its needs.
Thus, the polis could not tell the mathematician what the object of mathematics was, but it could, if need be, command the mathematician to devote his life to the good of the polis' immediate needs in war or peace. This same principle applied to the philosopher. Socrates was a soldier in the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War, as he tells us in The Apology. Though Socrates clearly understood, in the case of Leon of Salamis, that there were things it was wrong to do even if the polity commanded them, still, he did not object to serving in the army on the grounds that he was a philosopher. Had Socrates been killed at Delium or Amphipolis, no injustice to philosophy would have occurred. Aristotle's political views were exactly the same on this point.
When Aristotle defined man as precisely the "rational animal", he meant to distinguish him from other beings in the universe, from other living and non-living beings which lacked reason, and from the gods who evidently had reason but no bodies. Man was thus the lowest of the spiritual beings but the highest of those that included matter in their substance. The being composed of body and rational soul achieved its end or perfection when it suffused all of the actions under its real control with this very reason. But this reason had itself its own function, its own activity, over and beyond any of its other practical functions of ruling passions, families, or polities or of making things.
The designation of man as not only a rational but also political animal, moreover, did not mean primarily that non-rational forces ruled man in the city. Rather, it meant that everything in the city, including non-rational forces, even punishment and coercion, should itself be ruled by orderly reason. Indeed, for Aristotle, everyone, including children and natural slaves, that is, those actual human beings who by accident of birth or fortune were in objective fact not capable of self-rule, was to be guided and directed in each of his actions by reason, by a substitute reason that supplied what was lacking. At least one of the functions both of the household and of the polity was to provide reason when it was naturally or artificially lacking. Nothing was to stand outside reason even though not everything was reason. Aristotle did not think that the passions were evil or bad because they were not reason, only that they needed to be understood for what they were and guided towards the good of reason as it sought a proper end for each human being.
Aristotle understood that politics, the activity of ruling and being ruled as mature adults, fell under what he called practical reason or prudence. The first use of reason is simply to be itself, to do what it does, namely, to know things, to know the truth of things with no further interest but that very knowing. This is the function of the theoretic intellect. Its relation to politics is of extreme importance and is itself very much influenced by what we do with our practical choices in the cities we build with them. Man cannot properly rule himself unless he knows what he is, what the world is, what explains why he is as he is. Aristotle also saw these latter questions as the most fascinating ones, the ones that, more than others, but not excluding the practical goods of life, constituted the communication of friends with one another.
Practical reason, on the other hand, implied another way to use the single intellect we have been given. Practical reason is itself divided into two categories, ethics/economics/politics and poetry or craft, into doing and making. With any experience of ourselves, it becomes quite clear that we are given by nature a certain internal structure or form. That is, every human being, unless nature fails somehow, as it can do, will have fears, pleasures, anger, speech, relationships with others, wealth. That we have these aspects of our human being is a matter of truth, of theoretical intellect. What we do about them, once knowing we have them, is a matter of practical intellect.
Some aspects of human beings are not directly subject to practical reason at all -- how fast our hair grows, for instance. Our practical reason rules those things in us for which we are called good or bad, for which we are praised or blamed. Practical reason means using our minds to put into existence something that can only come from us at this time and this place, say a chair that we made or a modifying of our action so that we are more able to control our anger.
Our fears and pleasures, clearly, do have a certain force or reality of their own. Each human being will have a somewhat different given pressure from his fears or pleasures or angers that is his innate tendency or inclination. To control anger will be more difficult for some than others. But everyone has a problem with it to some degree. Thus, we begin to realize that we do have the capacity to control our pleasures or fears or angers. We become aware that we are blamed if we do not control ourselves, praised if we do. It is possible for us, using our intellects practically, to guide these realities that we find within ourselves. We begin to control ourselves in individual actions of courage or temperance; we learn to be just to others. That is, we can acquire virtues that are habits of action.
Virtues are a kind of second nature to us whereby we have learned to identify situations of anger or pleasure or fear and thereby to rule ourselves so that we direct these legitimate passions to our own proper end. We do not let our passions interfere with what we want and ought to do. We understand how all of our actions relate to that inner definition we have of our end, of what it is for which we do all that we do.
Aristotle pointed out at the end of the Ethics that some human beings, especially young males, begin to act outside of reason, outside of parental authority. They do not act according to reasonable community standards of proper activity; they disrupt common life. Thus, we need to have an institution of coercion to supply what reason lacks when some human beings act contrary to the good of others. Coercion is not a bad word, even though we would not have to employ it if we were at all times acting rationally to rule ourselves. Coercion is the use of force or punishment in order to insure a certain minimal standard of reason in the acts of those citizens who do abuse the good of others. For Aristotle, the use of force itself is a rational enterprise on the part of the polity when it directs itself to those who do not in fact rule themselves.
The purpose of coercion is to instil external reason in actions when inner reason proves ineffective. Punishment, likewise, is something due to someone because of the objective disorder of not ruling oneself. To accept punishment as one's due is likewise to acknowledge the legitimacy and rightness of the natural or positive law as a standard of human actions. Punishment in this sense restores order on disorder. Its perfection, as it were, is when the criminal acknowledges that he, the criminal, ought not to have done what he did and is willing to accept the punishment as a sign of the higher and prior validity of the order he should have followed in ruling himself.
Aristotle's ethical and political books are directed to a specific area of reality, that is, to those actions which need not exist, but do exist, because they flow from human beings precisely insofar as they are or ought to be rational in ruling themselves. Ethics is the rule of oneself over oneself in those things in oneself over which we have some voluntary control, more or less, at the right time, the right place, and in the right circumstances. The virtue of prudence is the intellectual virtue of the moral virtues. It is, or ought to be, present in every act of any virtue. It identifies the situation, what is going on in particular situation with which we are to deal. In this light, prudence establishes the particular act we are going to put into reality. In this sense, prudence is the highest of the moral virtues since it is the one that puts the stamp of this person, this mind, on the acts that flow forth from him. We might add, of course, that imprudence is also an act of one's mind itself putting our stamp on those acts and deeds that we wrongly do.
The good man, the man with the virtues well in hand, the magnanimous man with even a high degree of virtue and self-knowledge, needs also, to be complete, the theoretical virtues. For these, in all likelihood, he needs not only to have acquired the practical virtues but also he needs to live in a good regime that will allow him to pursue freely the highest things. The politician responsible for this regime leads, in this sense, a good life. However, this life is not the life of the philosopher. The good politician has to have enough sense to see that there are things he does not possess.
Aristotle thought that probably the politician could be prevented from himself claiming to rule all things, including theoretic intellect, by good education in music and gymnastics. That is, even though the politician did not have the time or even the acute intelligence of the good philosopher, still he could be ordered to a habitual or intuitional understanding of higher things even if he was not completely familiar with them theoretically. The politician can be himself a good man. He can by a kind of co-natural knowledge judge rightly about particular situations in light of the good, whatever its source. This experiential capacity is also why at times the politician is more capable than given philosophers to see what ought to be done. The politician can likewise be more capable of seeing that what comes from the gods or the supernatural order may in fact answer human issues that is existentially before him.
I have taken some time with the way that Aristotle describes the moral life in its ethical, economic, political, and intellectual aspects to show that this life can be properly and accurately described by a philosopher who did not know revelation, particularly Christian revelation. Christian philosophy did have certain theoretical problems with Aristotle, about creation and the eternity of the world, about whether God had any providential care of what is not God, about whether God was lonely, about whether God was capable of any efficient causality outside of Himself. Each of these points can be understood in a manner that makes it impossible to interpret Aristotle in a manner consistent with revelation. But likewise each of these issues can lead to a reexamination of the philosophical principles underlying them so that the relevant Christian position is seen not to be contradictory to Aristotle. This of course was the general burden of the work of St. Thomas.
Even before St. Thomas, however, Christian thought had surmised that the main problem with the classical authors, especially in the area of morality, was not that these classical authors were wrong, but that somehow what they proposed was impossible or unlikely to come about by merely human resources. Ernest Fortin, writing specifically on Augustine, put the matter in its proper light:
What finally convinced him [Augustine] that happiness was not to be sought in philosophic contemplation, but in the Christian ideal of the love of God and neighbor? Augustine's works contain a variety of answers but none is more readily intelligible than his probing analysis of the internal difficulties besetting classical moral and political philosophy. Stated in its simplest terms, the argument runs as follows. The pagan philosophers correctly defined happiness in terms of virtue or excellence, that is to say, in terms of the highest goals to which human beings can aspire, but they are unable to show the way to these goals.
Fortin pointed out that Aristotle, who brilliantly described justice and virtue, still recognized that most people were not virtuous and that those who were had a difficult time in seeing, on the basis of philosophy alone, what the purpose of it all was. The pagan philosophers could offer no adequate answers to these perplexities, but they were perplexed by them.
The best regime that the pagan philosophers recognized to be in the logic of their discussion, however, had no real existence.
They themselves were the first to admit that their model of the most desirable society cannot be translated into action. It exists in speech or 'private discussion' only. De facto, one is always faced with some sort of trade-off, that is to say, with a choice among a variety of regimes none of which is superior in every respect to any of the others.
What we can conclude from these observations of Fortin is not that classical politics and philosophy are not worthwhile, but that they both betray a certain curious insufficiency, a certain incompleteness even in their own order, even when they can understand what virtue is and what human knowledge, the search for the things that cannot be otherwise, is about. What is important to notice is that the argument with the classical writers is not whether they understood what ethics or politics or metaphysics was about. What perplexed them most was that they could neither achieve what they knew to be right and true nor understand the full import of existence and its causes.
Scholarship about Aristotle has, no doubt, a long and fascinating history. The "two truth" theory, designed to protect the autonomy of both reason and revelation, is associated also with Marsilius of Padua's analysis of Aristotle. This theory argues that the truths of politics and the truths of revelation are incommensurate with each other. Both can be true. This theory seems to have appeared again in political analyses of Aristotle. The position of Aquinas is that, with some philosophic correction, Aristotle and revelation are compatible. Indeed, they rely on each other. This compatibility is a relatively neglected position in contemporary political philosophy. One of the basic tenets of Marsilius' version of "Latin Averroism", of the two truth theory, as Pieper remarked, is the view that "there is no state superior to the practice of philosophy."
The question can be asked, however, whether precisely Aristotle's philosopher is someone to whom this Averroist dictum applies, granting that the life of philosophy and contemplation is for Aristotle the highest human life, a life that is, when practiced, somewhat "divine"? Or is Aquinas closer to the real tenets and positions of Aristotle even when he has sometimes to disagree with Aristotle on Aristotle's own philosophic grounds?
` Such questions seem pertinent in the light of Robert Bartlett's essay on "Aristotle's Science of the Best Regime." This interesting essay is in fact an examination of Aristotle's position about what we call today religion. Bartlett maintains that a certain neglect in the study of Aristotle's philosophic life has given rise to a dangerous revival of supernatural influence in politics because of the theoretical inadequacies of the modern liberal defense of the separation of church and state. Curiously, Bartlett identifies this danger to the modern liberal solution as coming from a fundamentalist Islam and the Christian right. One wonders whether his intentions are restricted to these two "dangers" or whether he intends to include all forms of supernatural consideration and if so, why he does not mention it?
Bartlett does not appear to have paid any specific attention to the Thomist tradition, nor in particular to the position of John Paul II himself who has argued quite clearly in Centesimus Annus and Veritatis Splendor, among many other places, that political and moral problems as we in fact find them today will not and cannot be solved without the presence of revelation. But this position about the practical necessity of revelation is not argued against the relative autonomy or worth or truth of the philosophic life, nor is it exactly the same position as Islamic fundamentalism or the so-called Christian right. Rather the argument for revelation arises directly out of the observed inadequacies of both politics and philosophy.
Bartlett, however, argues against the view that some supernatural influence or revelation is needed for man to live the good life in the public order. He makes this argument with full realization that Nietzsche and his followers have in fact undermined the validity of the original modern basis on which church and state can remain separate. Religion is thus no longer subordinate to politics and more and more demands a place in the public forum precisely against the moral failures observed in civil society and their philosophic origins. Bartlett even attributes the victory over communism not to religious forces that would include the Pope and Solzhenitsyn with the spiritual forces within the former communist world but to liberalism itself.
In any case, Bartlett argues that there are
antiliberal regimes (that) ground their opposition to liberalism in an appeal to religious truth, especially to Islamic law; the ordering of political life there owes, or is said to owe, its origin to the one true God whose law is as thoroughly political as any merely human law but is necessarily free of imperfection.
These regimes deny freedom and equality, even reason, as the basis for their validity. Thus, Bartlett wants to think through the "quarrel between faith and rationalism". The drama of "reason and revelation" needs to be reconsidered at the level of politics and political philosophy. What Bartlett has in mind is an effort to recover philosophy as a counterbalance to revelation, revelation conceived, on the surface at least, after the manner largely of Islam and the so-called Christian right. Bartlett gives no real analysis of the latter. He thereby leaves the impression that Islamic fundamentalism and the Christian right are differing aspects of the same phenomenon.
Leo Strauss, in the "Introduction" to his famous book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, had approached this question with perhaps more caution. Strauss remarked that both Israel and Islam were religions of law. This theological position meant that the judge or lawyer, not the theologian, held the central position. Christianity was in a different category, a difference that is most significant for the argument I wish to make here with regard to revelation and politics. Strauss noted that Aristotle's Politics has a place in Christian philosophy that is occupied by Plato's Republic for Jewish and Islamic thinkers. The meaning of this difference about Aristotle's politics does not seem to have been considered in Bartlett's analysis.
Strauss remarked, speaking of Farabi's interpretation of Plato, that "philosophy is the highest theoretical art", while the "royal art is the highest practical art." The fact that both philosophy and the royal art (politics) are necessary for happiness means that philosophy is not sufficient for happiness. For Farabi what needs to be added to philosophy to make man happy is not religion, as we would expect from a Muslim thinker, but politics, in fact "Platonic politics". Politics is the substitute for religion, that is, Islam in this case. In Strauss' view, then, Farabi "may be said to lay the foundations for the secular alliance between philosophy and the princes friendly to philosophy, and to initiate the tradition whose most famous representatives in the West are Marsilius of Padua and Machiavelli. What starts out to be a subordination of philosophy and politics to religion ends up by submitting both philosophy and religion to politics, the modern liberal solution.
What Bartlett seems to argue is for a return to an Aristotle who is not by virtue of his own philosophy open to revelation. Bartlett is careful not to ask whether the position of Aquinas is to be identified with Farabi or Islam, or with Marsilius or the recent Christian right. He assumes that it is sufficient to handle the current problem of revelation's place in human life by identifying it with Islam and the Christian right. Does Aristotle's religion, in other words, imply that human knowledge as such is insufficient for achieving the kind of human happiness which a being of the human order can expect? "Does the expertise in political affairs and, above all, the science of the founding of the best city, rely on knowledge accessible to the unassisted human mind or supernatural inspiration?"
Bartlett's stated project is to revive an understanding of religion in Aristotle that would allow its presence within the polis. But this religion takes the shape of modern liberalism. It does not imply by this presence that religion was necessary to contribute to the solution of actual human problems. It did not imply that revelation was in fact necessary either to achieve human individual happiness or to save the life of the city. To achieve this arrangement, Bartlett, in effect, embraces a version of Latin Averroism that would reinstate the primacy of philosophy. This primacy would allow the liberal solutions of modernity to remain in tact as a general rule for everyone. But to counteract the appeal of the supernatural, Aristotle's theoretic life is proposed sufficient both in the order of polity and in the order of theory. The appeal of fundamentalism is thwarted by the lure of philosophy. "By thus thinking through our profound longings for happiness, which naturally find their first expression in the hope for a 'best regime' guided by a perfect law," Bartlett observes,
... we may come to see the transpolitical activity that is according to Aristotle their true fulfillment. We may become genuinely open to the possibility that the human mind is at home in this world, that looking upon or contemplating it is in principle sufficient for happiness, and that there is as a result no need to make further demands upon the given world.
What is perhaps new in Bartlett's position in comparison with Aristotle himself and that scholastic tradition that has seen him to be so helpful to revelation is the stress on the sufficiency for man of his own reason.
Aristotle himself was in a somewhat different position in that he had reached the limits of what we might expect from the human intellect by its own powers. But Aristotle's political science recognized that man was not the highest being in the universe (1141a20-25) and that the divine power within him did seek to know this divine source as much as it could. Thus when Bartlett proposes to restore the "premodern understanding of political things," this view, now attributed to Aristotle, is said to imply "the sufficiency of human reason to guide political life against those who, by appealing to supernatural edicts or to special knowledge, would deny it."
Bartlett, nevertheless, recognizes that liberalism has, by concentrating on tolerance and supplying sufficient goods, neglected the philosophical life. He wants to restore it precisely in order to derail the incursions of particularly revelational religion which ground themselves on the failures of these practical projects to satisfy the human heart. The revival of Aristotelian philosophy is thus proposed against the background of an emptiness in modern culture and perhaps against the failure of the liberal virtues to guarantee virtue itself, something that Aristotle himself was most concerned to accomplish in his ethics.
Reflections on Aristotle's science of the best regime is therefore helpful in counteracting this indifference, engendered by liberalism, to serious thoughts about God..., thoughts that in every nonliberal time and place are held to be of first importance for human beings.
Bartlett recognizes the dangers of "ideology" as itself a kind of secular religion perhaps more
dangerous than religion itself, but as ideology is now largely discredited, it is religion that is the current problem in this view.
Thus, in the end, Bartlett wants to restore philosophy, if only to a few. Such theoretic endeavor is not
irrelevant to the health of liberal democracy in favor of common decency, responsible self-government, and political moderation wherever these may arise -- arguments grounded in neither party interest or "ideology" but philosophy.
Bartlett recognizes that philosophy cannot be founded on a "groundless act of the will." The claims of the divine, following this version of Aristotle, need philosophic accounting. Such a philosophic analysis of philosophy will presumably prevent the intrusions into liberal polities of arguments from particularly supernatural revelation that make their claims precisely on philosophic grounds as their starting points. One has the impression that Bartlett does not recognize that revelation can, in fact, have philosophical grounds, can have what Aquinas called "praeambula fidei".
What are we to make of this position? No doubt it is a responsible recognition that classical liberalism has a serious intellectual weakness before the divine, before the fact that the way we ought to act is not itself indifferent either to the gods or to the polity. It is furthermore a recognition that speculative philosophy has a serious claim to our interest, the neglect of which has led to the continuing problems with ideology in the modern era. What is to be wondered about here is whether the liberalism that Bartlett seeks to defend against the gods is not itself an ideology, or perhaps better, not itself the source of much ideology in the modern era? It is by no means clear, as Nietzsche suspected, that Marxism and liberalism did not have at some point the same philosophic premises.
The initial problem I have here is the lumping together of Islamic fundamentalism and "the Christian right" as the major enemies of the liberal state. These two designated forces make too easy targets for the seriousness with which revelation challenges modern political culture in its theoretical liberal phase. If we return to Strauss for a moment, we can see that philosophy in Christianity is not as alien as it might at first sight seem. "For the Christian, the sacred doctrine is revealed theology," Strauss wrote;
for the Jew and the Muslim, the sacred doctrine is, at least primarily, the legal interpretation of the Divine Law.... The sacred doctrine in the latter sense has, to say the least, much less in common with philosophy than the sacred doctrine in the former sense. It is ultimately for this reason that the status of philosophy was, as a matter of principle, much more precarious in Judaism and in Islam than in Christianity: in Christianity philosophy became an integral part of the officially recognized and even required training of the student of the sacred doctrine.
The fact that Christianity -- or at least that element in Christianity that does so, we cannot forget the hostility to philosophy in the early church and in the Reformation -- can take philosophy seriously as integral to its own doctrine suggests that philosophy is not an alternative to revelation. Indeed, the classical Thomist position is simply that both philosophy in its fullness and revelation in its fullness cannot contradict each other. This relationship suggests positively that revelation may in fact be able to contribute to philosophy and even to politics precisely in their own orders which respectively reveal some inability to answer their own problems and issues.
In light of Bartlett's thesis, Léon Elders put the matter most delicately:
For Aristotle, morality is human and intramundane instead of being founded on transcendent principles. It is nevertheless trans-immanent insofar as the place of the other is essential to it. The well-being of man does not refer itself to God. Here it is necessary all the same to note that the content of contemplation, which is our good, is clearly God. We do not accept without reservation the affirmation ... that the morality of Aristotle is anti-religious.
The difference between Bartlett and Elders, it seems, gets to the root of Bartlett's own problem with proposing Aristotle the philosopher as precisely a counterweight to supernatural religion. Bartlett is, of course, right in worrying about a supernatural that apparently has no grounding in philosophy. But if philosophy and revelation be conceived as related to one another and not as contradictory things, it seems possible that it is the philosopher side of Aristotle that is most open to revelation. If this be so, then it would also follow that the politician himself is not to be conceived as somehow independent of or superior to philosophy or revelation as is the case in Latin Averroism and liberalism.
The notion that a philosophy content with a view of God or man that does not in principle conceive itself open to a higher end than what is available in philosophy itself does not seem to be itself an Aristotelian position. The usefulness of Aristotle to Christian philosophy is in the first place that he was a philosopher. But it also clear that Aristotle's philosophy could, following the lines of its own logic, be open to interpretations that were not available to Aristotle but are available to us. We are not, in other words, in the same position as Aristotle with regard to revelation and its seriousness.
Ismael Quiles put the matter in this way:
It is necessary to observe that the interpretation of Aristotle that is least Christian is generally supported by his own express words, in his own texts; on the other hand, the creationist and Christian interpretation is found rather on the interpretation of the mind of Aristotle and in the logical prolongation of his argument. In any case, we owe to Christian philosophy the limpid and clear affirmation of rational truths so important for completing and clarifying the partial conquest of pagan philosophy, and correcting it in its deviations.
What this passage implies for our purposes here is that the way of philosophy is itself a noble way and one that needs to be followed, if only by a few, but that it is not sufficient in itself and cannot on its own terms exclude from consideration the claims to knowledge that arise from outside of philosophy but not in contradiction to it. The challenge of revelation or Christian religion to philosophy and politics, then, is that certain supernatural elements are needed for them to achieve their own ends and that philosophy and politics by themselves will not be able even to retain their hold on virtue if they are content simply with the sort of happiness that one can find in the politics or theoretical philosophy of human reason alone.
The defense of modern liberalism that would rest on a revival of Aristotelian contemplative philosophy, itself theoretically closed off from revelation, is not the same classical Aristotle himself open to whatever reality might come into being. Henry Veatch's accurate description of Aristotle's ethical and philosophical life, itself related to Aristotle's discussion of the immortality of the soul, is worth citing, in conclusion, because it states more clearly the import of Aristotelian philosophy itself. "Why not say that the chief if not the sole end of human knowledge is simply the knowledge of man?" Veatch asks.
... Why not say, for instance, that all of the business of research and investigation in science, far from being an end in itself, is rather the means to the final end of simply knowing the truth, and knowing it for its own sake? ... Why not say that over and above and beyond such a life of virtuous action there lies the still more ultimate end of our simply being able to contemplate the truth in a knowledge of God, of man, and of the whole nature of things?
Bartlett wants to save this philosophical position as a bulwark against supernatural religion as a claim that does in fact bring into play answers and graces that are lacking to man as we know him even in his own order. The problem with Bartlett's position is that it closes itself off, in a way that neither Aristotle nor Veatch do, from some response to the enigmas of philosophy itself and especially to that enigma that makes the good life to belong to the few.
The answers of Christian revelation at least are not designed to doubt the worth and value of either the philosopher or the politician but to direct themselves to achieving the ends that in some sense the virtuous and philosophic lives can recognize in their own orders. In this sense, the Nietzschean attack on the modern project of man's self-sufficiency has succeeded in depriving man both of reason and grace. Bartlett's effort to restore contemplative reason would itself be more hopeful were it to restore an Aristotle not closed off from the higher things that in fact may have been revealed in the world and addressed in their own way to both politics and philosophy.
TRANSCENDENCE AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
"And yet -- do we not find ourselves somewhat caught in the modern world of work -- faced with the increasing politicization of the academic realm and the ominous shrinking of the inner and outer opportunities for public discourse, and especially genuine debate? Where shall we seek the 'free area' in which alone theoria (and by theoria, we mean concern, limited by no practical [political, economic, technical, sectarian] considerations, with 'truth and nothing else')? We begin to understand Plato's academy had been a thiasos, a religious association assembling for regular sacrificial worship. Does this have any bearing on our time?"
-- Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems in Medieval Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 155.
The primary task of political philosophy is to situate life itself in an intelligible context, in the whole, so that politics, as itself something essential to this life, to this whole, need not, however, function as a substitute metaphysics. Politics, in its self-justification, when its intrinsic limitations are not intellectually understood, can become a spurious description of the order of reality, itself dependent solely on human projections. This awareness that politics can claim to be more than itself implies that the defense of politics, the allowing it to remain itself -- that is, the highest practical science, but not the highest science as such (1095a15-16) -- requires, at some fundamental level, the recognition that there are things beyond politics.
The understanding of these things beyond politics constitutes the essential factor in limiting politics to be politics. Behind any given order, in other words, is the intelligibility of that order, the order of its parts, the end of the whole. Things will not "act" as they should unless they be allowed to be what they are. This conclusion necessarily implies that many quite legitimate spheres of human reality besides politics exist even when we rightly grant that man by nature is a political animal. This explication was, in part, the burden of Aristotle's last book of The Ethics and the first book of The Politics. To politicize what is not political is to subvert or destroy it. The first line of defense for anything, then, particularly for politics, is theoretical. This position means that the contemplative order ultimately "upholds" the practical order by knowing what politics is in the order of things.
Socrates, at the end of the fifth book of The Republic, called philosophers those "who delight in each thing that is itself" (480a). But not all things are the same; each thing acts according to what it is, to its being, to its level of existence. Dogs act in dog ways, stars in star ways. What is peculiar about specifically "human" being is that it possesses activities that remain within it, as well as those that reach out to a world no human being made to be what it is. Through intellection, then, what is not intellect itself can, in some sense, come to exist in a limited, finite being, after the manner of intellect, not existence. Thus, it is not enough for human beings merely "to exist" to be what they are in their fullness. None the less, they should exist in such a way that what is not their particular selves becomes also theirs, without ceasing to be the finite beings they are. The order and cause of the whole is a legitimate concern of the human intellect. Man is a rational being.
"Placing happiness in sheer naked existence," Yves Simon wrote,
is a metaphysical mistake of the first magnitude, and of great profundity -- of such profundity, indeed, that the metaphysician at once recognizes in it the kind of error from which much can be learned. The plenitude that happiness implies is not found in naked existence but rather in the ultimate exercise of his (man's) best activity.
In the classical philosophical tradition, this highest activity implied that, however interior its depth in the rational being, the reach of reason transcends itself to seek to know a what is that the human intellect does not itself constitute in being. That is, the very concept of happiness, with which Aristotle began his reflections on ethical and political philosophy, includes both 1) the self remaining the self, not a god or a beast (1253a29), and 2) the self reaching what is the highest cause in itself. The human intellect seeks to know what it can about the first cause because it knows finite things that do not fully explain either their existing at all or their existing as this and not that particular kind of a being.
Political philosophy at its best is ordered to understanding how this pursuit of the highest good and the highest knowing can come about through virtue, freedom, and ordered authority. At its worst, political philosophy seeks to identify itself with what it makes on its own authority. Political philosophy in this latter sense identifies both the self and the transcendent self, that is, the self that knows things other than itself, with what the mind constructs out of its own resources, particularly its highest resources in reason.
This latter possibility of a self-constructed reality not in conformity with what is is, moreover, the reason why specifically "modern" political philosophy is paradoxical, why it is itself a philosophic problem of the greatest moment. That is, the good polity must be constituted to allow non-political or trans-political reflections, actions, and institutions to occur and exist -- from those activities of human love of the particular to those of prayer and voluntary good works.
This awareness that politics does not constitute everything is what Aristotle meant when he called politics the highest "practical" science, but not the highest "theoretical" science (1141a20-22). When in Machiavelli's Prince the theoretic kingdoms of the ancient and medieval philosophers are rejected in favor of what men do "do," the most essential check on politics, the theoretical check, was undermined. Controversies about the place of Machiavellin in political philosophy essentially revolve about this consideration of giving to the politician the "freedom" to himself determine the distinction of good and evil.
Both in terms of their power and moral sovereignty, modern states in particular -- those theoretic-practical entitles that only fully appeared in the 16th Century -- have the raw capacity, or at least desire, to prevent any consideration of truth other than the polity's own public version of the world. In the Apology, Socrates maintained that he owed his life to his remaining for as long as possible a private citizen (31). And while this privacy did not in the end save him, his death preserved the primacy of truth to politics. The modern state in its extreme forms, by contrast, demands both internal and external conformity with its, often democratically chosen, order. That is to say, the reason for Socrates' privacy, to pursue the truth, remains a problem in the modern state, perhaps in a form even more extreme than in the democracy at Athens. This is why the modern state is so much more dangerous, even when, or perhaps especially when, it claims it is founded, theoretically founded, on no specific truth, the claim of the modern liberal states.
In this sense, moreover, a true metaphysics, a valid science of what is, however difficult to come by in itself, presupposes a limited, or at least, an inefficient polity. This practically limited polity need not mean, of course, that the best philosophy, let alone the best art, is necessarily produced by or in the best existing states. We have examples of tyrants supporting good art and killing saints. It does mean, none the less, that the accurate description (or existence) of the best state is not exclusively what we mean when we describe or await the fullness of what is. This is why the philosophical description of the best regime ought to be a protection, not an undermining, of existing practical regimes without at the same time denying their function in pointing out disorders in existing regimes.
Thus, a truly "limited politics" is justified only by a valid metaphysics that properly places the part within the whole, the part that is politics within the whole of what is. This "part" that is politics does not deny that it is itself in some sense a view of the whole, an architectonic science, that looks at how all practical actions relate to each other and to what transcends practical action itself (1094a25-b11). In turn, a valid metaphysics must account for the question of revelation, of a more comprehensive whole than what reason itself might grasp, whether revelation be understood in the Platonic sense, or in that of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity. The truth of any or all of these revelations, clearly, is itself a fundamental, unavoidable issue, obscured by the primacy of a theory of tolerance unquestioned in its own premises. The argument for transcendence in political philosophy is not an argument against the need to sort out the validity of the various claims of revelation to be true.
That is to say, normally legitimate questions arise from the human experience of living and living politically, wherever and whenever this experience occurs in human history. There are questions that arise in political living that remain unsolvable by politics itself. Yet such questions are quite intelligible in themselves. Since Aristotle held that nature makes nothing "in vain," including human nature, this position usually causes us at least to wonder whether, in the case of the highest things, there is not something incomplete or even contradictory about the world or man.
The atheist's charge, be it mild or violent, of "ill-made" against the Deity on account of the conditions of the actual world is not altogether unintelligible. No doubt, there is a school of thought that calls such transcendent questions illusory. They are said to be the causes of wasted energies better spent on improving the world. The essence of humanism becomes, in this position, the exclusion of the highest things as distracting. But this conclusion only causes the issue to go officially underground, even in ourselves.
Moreover, if there be experiences of transcendence that arise out of politics itself, what are they? The most famous is perhaps the manner in which Socrates came to speak of rewards and punishments in the last book of The Republic. Justice required him to posit immortality and a place of final reward and punishment for goods and evils not adequately accounted for in the existing polity. Another issue would be the specific object of "contemplation" that Aristotle told us in the last book of The Ethics to be the highest end of that consideration of happiness that ethical and political life within human experience requires us to ponder (1177b8-78a5).
What then is the nature of the responses these unsettled questions that arise in political philosophy itself have received? Both metaphysics and political theology permit us at least to acknowledge that some of these revelational responses belong to the same realm of discourse as philosophy does. But the key question, other than the accurate description of what such revelational answers are stated to be, is whether such answers are addressed to the questions properly and necessarily posed by the political philosophers? "Political theology," in this sense, would specify the intelligible formulation of such responses as they were presented in the revelational traditions.
Political philosophy thus would be an aspect of theology and revelation, though not derived from either, if the content of revelation turned out to complete or resolve dilemmas left unanswered or unaccounted for by political philosophy. If such answers completed the meaning of the higher things in their comprehension and were, simultaneously, answers to questions arising in political life, it would be less than philosophical to conclude that no relation existed between the questions properly posed and the answered correctly formulated. This approach would be doubly meaningful for the philosopher, in particular, if there were also found in the revelational tradition at least some positions that were also able to be reached by philosophy alone. This parallel appearance would suggest confirmation that both truth and cosmos in the light of the highest things are one in origin.
Aristotle had observed, to recall, that if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science (1141a20-22). That is to say, the political answers to the highest questions would be definitive were man the highest being. Thus, there could be no grounds for a conflict between philosophy -- or even poetry, to recall The Republic (607b) -- and politics since politics as the master practical science would rule all other disciplines. Any opposition between the order of polity and the order of what is would be a delusion, since there could be in nature no order to which the human intellect was open that would indicate the limits of the city.
On this hypothesis, the City of God or The Republic in speech would not be able to justify itself against the city of man, the polity, whatever else that higher city turned out to be. This latter position was, in essence, the sophist position from the first book of The Republic. It has many revivals in modern political philosophy when nothing superior to the will of the people or the prince can be conceived or admitted as operative in any polity.
In Aristotle's view, however, man was not the highest being, but the lowest of beings with intelligence as definitive of their form and existence, the "microcosmos," to be exact. Aristotle advised rather that the very dignity of the human in its highest reaches depended upon human beings devoting at least some of their fundamental energies to the highest things as such (1177b31-78a2).
The philosophers especially were to consider what transcended human doing and making, to consider what was itself uncaused, what could not be otherwise, what was for its own sake. In this sense, the "pull" of the higher things exercised upon each individual human being was the source of his liberty from things less exalted, while not at the same time denying the latter their limited goodness. The value of these latter things were not denied but enhanced by the philosophic recognition that they did not form or constitute all that is.
Eric Voegelin put the matter in this way:
"Reason" did not exist in language in the history of mankind until it was formulated in the Greek fifth century as a word denoting the tension between man as a human being and the Divine ground of his existence of which he is in search.
The very presence of this tension, this reason, is what limits politics most radically to guarantee that it be merely, yet nobly, an organized relationship in which each human being ought to be able to act according to his being. This resultant action or interaction we call politics did not itself, however, result in some sort of new substantial being. What was attracted to the highest things, in tension with the Divinity, was not the polity itself, but each individual as such, no matter what his polity. Man's being was totally political, yet the political was ordered to what was beyond the political.
Thus, in Aristotle's words, "political science did not make man to be man" (125822-24), by which he meant that the what is of man was already intelligible, already a "given" because man did not cause his own existence and knew he did not cause it. By self-reflection within the very act of knowing something besides himself, some particular thing, some stone even, man also knew he existed, knew he caused neither the stone nor himself to be. So it is, neither the object other than man himself that he knows in cognition, nor the man himself known indirectly as the "I" who knows, was formed or created by man.
This understanding of how we know was what constituted the very first sign of the limited being of man, the realization that man was already man "from nature". This conclusion was the metaphysical grounding of the "moderation" that underlies classical and revelational political philosophy. Too, this moderation meant, in some basic sense, that the human enterprise was primarily one of discovery or "surprise," not one of self-construction.
"The supreme adventure," then, as Chesterton put it, "is being born.... When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made." The project of what man was "to do" or "to make," both perfectly human powers, originated in the prior reality of what man was in being by the very fact that he was conceived and born a human being, not something else, not a toad or an angel. It was on this latter fact, the givenness of our precisely human being, that human freedom and destiny ultimately rested, even in the political order. Implied in this reality was the realization that the metaphysical and revelational ends for which human being and freedom existed were more exalted than any alternative or substitute ones that man might make or concoct for himself. The Nietzschean "death of God" and the modern revolutionary project to replace all natural and divine ends by man-established ones were, indirectly and by accurate comparison, testimony to the superior formulation of man by nature and its own source.
The importance of this position needs to be understood. The first step is the effort to replace man's natural "being" and its intelligible destiny by an artificial or humanly elaborated one. This replacement is the enterprise of modern political philosophy from Hobbes and Rousseau. It is the logical and expected alternative left to an intelligence that finds no order given in the whole or in the structure of its self. The only source of "rationality" that exists, on the hypothesis that no divine order can be posited as a first cause, is the human intellect. But tis human intellect is now presupposed to no given form of its own. As a result, the task of the "highest" science -- now politics, not metaphysics -- becomes that of "creating" or forming man according to norms specifically opposed to what he was seen to be in nature.
In this connection, then, Eric Voegelin's remarks on "the death of God" are pertinent:
The murder of God is committed speculatively by explaining divine being as the work of man.... In order to appear the unlimited master of being, man must so delimit being that limitations are no longer evident.... It does not suffice ... to replace the old world of God with a new world of man; the world of God itself must have been a world of man, and God a work of man which can therefore be destroyed if it prevents man from reigning over the order of being. The murder of God must be made retroactively and speculatively.... Historically, the murder of God is not followed by the superman, but by the murder of man: the deicide of the gnostic theoreticians is followed by the homicide of revolutionary practitioners.
Political philosophy, thus, presupposed to no limits, necessarily became itself the origin of the distinctiveness of things, including human things.
Both human and divine things were strangely intractable, however, to an absolute human power to refashion them into something better. In the modern project, on the other hand, we only know what we make so that all truth, including political truth, is in fact "artistic" truth. Artistic truth is conformity between what we make and what we intended to make. If politics is this sort of truth in its essence, if the polity "makes" truth because nothing higher than it exists, we lose our capacity, by right, to oppose any structure of the city except on the basis of another, more powerful will. Thus, nothing can, strictly speaking, be "wrong" with any polity as such, since its origin lies exclusively in will and political will dependent on no order outside itself. In this sense, Machiavelli could rightly suggest that the only bad prince was one who did not succeed. In this way, transcendence, of whatever form, has disappeared into politics. Hobbes' Leviathan is accountable only to itself when it comes to the validity of the truth in theology or politics or poetry.
Leo Strauss, in commenting on the nature of modern liberal education, noted how philosophy became subservient to political philosophy when political philosophy itself accepted the Baconian improvement of man's own estate as its very purpose.
According to classical philosophy, the end of the philosophers is radically different from the end or ends actually pursued by the non-philosophers. Modern philosophy comes into being when the end of philosophy is identified with the end which is capable of being actually pursued by all men. More precisely, philosophy is now asserted to be essentially subservient to the end which is capable of being actually pursued by all men.
This conclusion is, no doubt, the "lowering of sights" from Machiavelli that specifically rejected, in the name of the personal incapacity of most men to be virtuous in the classical sense. The very notion of transcendence and a consequent distinction between good and evil knowable by the human intellect as given has disappeared. This difference between what men do "do" and what they ought to do is, in essence, the root of the difference between classical natural law and modern natural right.
What followed from this position, as Strauss also perceptively observed, was not merely the abandonment of classical philosophy as such, but the incorporation of revelational higher means and norms into this very scheme of a new political philosophy. Man's highest good became identified with a version of politics based on a projection of Plato's community of wives, children, and property, on Hobbes' primacy of "life," on comfort and compassion as the purpose both of philosophy and revelation. In this context, even "grace" and "mercy" were politicized.
Here are Strauss' words:
Philosophy thus understood could be presented with some plausibility as inspired by biblical charity, and accordingly philosophy in the classical sense could be disparaged as pagan and as sustained by sinful pride. One may doubt whether the claim of biblical inspiration was justified and even whether it was always raised in entire sincerity. However this may be, it is conducive to greater clarity, and at the same time in agreement with the modern conception, to say that the moderns opposed a "realistic," earthy, not to say pedestrian conception to the idealistic, heavenly, not to say visionary conception of the classics. Philosophy or science was no longer an end in itself, but in the service of human power, of a power to be used for making human life longer, healthier, and more abundant.
What is particularly remarkable about this passage is that it describes rather accurately the theoretic framework by which the City of God was turned into the earthy city as its exclusive meaning, both in philosophy and in theology. Moreover, this earthy city, now seen as the intellectual end both of philosophy and of revelation, no longer has any transcendent check upon what this power in the service of a longer, healthier, or more abundant life, might turn out to be. By gaining the freedom of human autonomy, we have lost a vision that did not arise from man himself.
Thus, we have "lowered the sights" from what we ought to do -- the "visionary" conception of the classics -- to what we do "do" -- the "pedestrian" description of life as bereft of transcendental purpose. We have implicitly reduced revelation to philosophy and philosophy to politics. As a result, politics becomes a version of economics, as Hannah Arendt maintained, that consists in nothing nobler than keeping alive, no matter at what cost or for what purpose.
If this line of reasoning be at all correct, Hobbes remains the one philosopher necessary to understand what has happened both to philosophy and to revelation. Indeed, a legitimate case can be made for the thesis that political philosophy is today, because of the peculiar nature of modern philosophy, at the heart of the struggle to retain the validity of even revelation. The reason for this relationship is that theology, by using more and more the concepts and terms of modern thought to explain itself, has indirectly embraced ideology as its own description of what it is about. Paradoxically, the first line of justification for classical theology today lies not in philosophy but in authentic political philosophy.
In this context, furthermore, it is not altogether inappropriate to recall Aristotle's reasons for rejecting the literal view of the best state as seen in Plato's Republic:
The extreme unification of a state is clearly not good; for a family is more self-sufficient than an individual, and a city than a family, and a city only comes into being when the community is large enough to be self-sufficing. If then self-sufficiency is to be desired, the lesser degree of unity is more desirable than the greater (1262b11-15).
This famous passage suggests why the project of Hobbes to stay alive at all costs was intellectually plausible. That is, all disparate being was reduced to the mere existence of one corporate being.
On the positive side, Aristotle's remark also serves to ground the reason why the polity and the human person could have different ends yet remain essentially related. Man remained a social animal even though his reason transcended politics. The greater substantial unity and greater inner activity of an individual person was itself the basis for its own higher and transcendent destiny.
The meaning of this result is clarified in Aquinas' Introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle's Ethics. Here, Aquinas wrote, "the whole that the political multitude or the family constitutes has only a unity of order, by reason of which it is not something absolutely one. Therefore, a part of this whole can have an operation that is not the operation of the whole..." (#5). This reflection gives us the most profound reason why the polity cannot absorb all our being. Even when the polity is at its best, the wholeness of each individual requires and can be given an end proper to itself that is not that of a political relation or order based on human interaction alone. It is because of this position that the "ground" of being itself can "pull" each of us, to recall Voegelin's analysis.
Thus, any charter of absolute human liberty free of any limits must also begin here. Any philosophical endeavor to recreate or construct a "new man" solely in terms of autonomous human intellect must, in the name of existence and being, reduce man to a single corporate entity. For autonomous man, final existence of some perfect polity down the ages arrayed against nothingness is the sole human guarantee, whatever be its consolation, against ultimate human and individual meaninglessness.
In the context of modern philosophy and its weakness, then, is there any inner-worldly project for a "recovery of the transcendent"? Is it possible to contemplate a politics set over the endeavor of merely staying alive? The first step, as Charles N. R. McCoy wrote, is "a scrupulous care for the thread of tradition in political philosophy." That is, we first need to see how the extreme results within the history of theology and philosophy were in fact related to a natural order whose essential form was not self-created. The denial of this given, natural order must be seen to lead logically to certain definable, even remarkable forms of counter-order that are proposed or imposed as alternatives to what is. The classless society, the general will, secular liberalism, even ecology and newer forms of feminism and multiculturalism seem to be attractive on precisely this basis of a free reproposing of what it is to be human from a raw malleable raw material that has no order or form of its own.
But for this first step to be possible, we must have some source of liberty from the many all-consuming modern ideologies themselves. Both Professors John Senior and Alasdair MacIntyre have intimated that some form of revival of the monastery or the contemplative academy is necessary, assuming it is possible. Josef Pieper, as we saw in the beginning, hinted that this final openness to real being required something like a Platonic academy in which worship was a regular feature, since what distracted us most was the disorder we found within ourselves. Transcendence, moreover, implies the inadequacy, though not the corruption, of human reason. In Voegelin's terms, some tension exists whereby the human intellect recognizes that it does not itself constitute the ground of being. Thus, it had no other choice but to search for it, if it existed -- hence the efforts to "prove" God exists -- or to be sought by it, with the capacity, because of its intellectual powers, of itself being found. The very possibility of revelation presupposes this latter capacity as an intrinsic feature of the human intellect itself.
In his Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot set down the critical alternatives:
The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has a distinct culture, is religion. Please do not ... make a mistake of anticipating my meaning. This is not a religious talk, and I am not setting out to convert anybody. I am simply stating a fact.... The unity of culture, in contrast to the unity of political organization, does not require us all to have only one loyalty: it means that there will be a variety of loyalties. It is wrong that the only duty of the individual should be held to be towards the state; it is fantastic to hold that the supreme duty of every individual should be towards a super-state.
Eliot thought that the universities ought to acknowledge a loyalty to something higher than the state. Yet it has been precisely the incapacity of the universities to preserve a philosophy other than skepticism, historicism, relativism, or positivism, that points to something lacking in the very natural enterprise of philosophy itself.
"It is exceedingly rare to find in the academy a recognition of the importance of recovering to the individual mind," Marion Montgomery wrote,
the gifts to it in its ways of knowing.... It remains to the particular mind, then, to rediscover those complementary gifts, through which one recovers virtue in the self, and an ordinate deportment toward creation. In that pilgrim journey, the risks of one's own being are at issue.
What, we might ask in conclusion, are these "risks of one's own being"?
In modern political philosophy, the risk is the identification of happiness with a political order over time in which the elevated aims of revelation are reabsorbed into the highest practical science to propose a worldly solution to the question of happiness. This is the very question with which we all must begin moral and political considerations in the first place. Eliot had warned that "modern political thought, inextricably involved with economics and with sociology, preempts to itself the position of the queen of the sciences." In the Greek tradition, however, metaphysics was the "queen" of the sciences, while for the revelational tradition, it was theology. The "risk" of political philosophy assuming into itself philosophy as such is then not merely a curious intellectual exercise, though it is that too. It is nothing less than turning over to the polity the definition of what is.
Leo Strauss, consequently, was remarkably astute in his City and Man, when he set down his program: "But in our age, it is much less urgent to show that political philosophy is the indispensable handmaid of theology than to show that political philosophy is the rightful queen of the social sciences, the sciences of man and human affairs...." What is to be noted here is that Strauss rightly called political philosophy the queen of the social sciences, not the queen of the sciences as such.
This restriction of Strauss meant that political philosophy itself was ordered to philosophy, whose own relation to theology or revelation at least required, in Strauss' view, an accurate knowledge of what was known by reason. The problem for philosophy was whether it could resolve all the questions that rightly and legitimately reason could pose to being, particularly human being. Aquinas was most perceptive in locating the "necessity" of revelation, of answers to questions rightly asked and initially formulated, within political philosophy (I-II, 91, 4). That is to say, transcendence and political philosophy, without denying the distinction of faith and reason, are, in some basic sense, part of the same discourse.
The second "risk" of being, therefore, is the temptation to ideology, to divorce the questioning power from all answers extant in reality. What is new in the latter decades of the twentieth century, on the way to the Third Millennium, is not Strauss' insistence on the social scientist's seeing the outlines of the City of Righteousness by his own powers, at least as much as he could. What is new is the co-option of so much of the revelational tradition itself by the ideologies of the modern era. Not merely must we pay attention to those related to socialism or fascism, but those to related to environmentalism, feminism, advanced liberalism, certain forms of conservatism, and deconstructionism. The tension and openness to being that Aquinas stood for is but rarely and clearly proposed in the intellectual circles of revelation itself. This means that the autonomous forms of political philosophy have in practice nowhere to turn except to themselves once they decide that human will is the only basis of political reality.
The final "risk" of being, consequently, is what Voegelin called "the cheap answer." That is, a restricted description of what our being is. Its outlines are found only in man himself and this in direct opposition to the answers found in classical metaphysics and revelation. These ideological responses, because of the queen of the social sciences, take on exclusively political form. Any speculative rectitude to politics is denied in theory because no intelligible order exists except order based on human reason alone.
To the double-pronged question, "Why are things at all, and why are they as they are?" there is of course no answer, because the ground from which things are what they are, and are at all, is a transcendent divine ground; there is no answer except in the symbolism of theology or of a myth or of a metaphysics of transcendent divine being or something like that -- which does not render any simple proposition for knowing about the matter. The question itself, you might say, implies its answer, because in raising this question the very nature of man who is in search of his ground, expresses itself in questioning to the last point, or to the last resort, what is the ground of everything with regard to existence and essence. In this question one keeps one's human condition and is not tempted to find cheap answers.
What is clear, however, is that such alternate "cheap" answers abound. It remains very difficult to discover the real ground of being because of them.
However, the main "risk" with Voegelin's own position, it would seem, lies in the fascination of a transcendence that cannot, or did not, become definitely Word, Flesh. That is, the caution to define what the consequences of transcendence are in philosophy itself and in political philosophy is not a guarantee of "openness" or a protection of the incomprehensibility of the divinity. In effect, it is a doubt that transcendence reaches each individual in an ordered way, which is the very notion of a "public" revelation, granted that its credibility presupposes intellectual "preambles," reasons, as Aquinas mainatined (I, 2, 2, ad 1). These positions do not necessarily become merely "simple propositions for knowing about the matter." They are reactions of the intellect itself in its own order to what it has received. Each person transcends the polity because he is a whole, even in his most distinct powers, particularly in his intellect that seeks to know what it has experienced in propositional terms, without denying their origins in what is.
Clearly, it is true that no finite intelligence can by its own powers know and possess all that is, the highest things. The risk is that we conclude from this truth that distinctive revelation does not reach philosophy in terms of the seemingly insolvable positions already perplexing the philosophers. Strauss' worry that revelation was a sort of unfair tactic for philosophers must be counterbalanced by the sense of unity that results when political theology and political philosophy exist in the same person seeking what is, however presented from reason or revelation.
The problem for the philosopher and the political philosopher in recent years is not the claims on intellect by the doctrines of revelation. Rather it is that revelation too often speaks in terms of those very political ideologies that the political philosopher recognizes as strictly human in origin. Liberation theology and environmental Christianity are only the most obvious examples in recent years. Again, this awareness of the intellectual nature of ideology is why it might be held that political philosophy is today a necessary discipline for the possibility of receiving even authentic revelation.
Without transcendence, itself critically evaluated in the most rigorous terms of what we know of reason, then, political philosophy is "unlimited" in theory. Without political philosophy, transcendence will not be recognized as addressing individual human beings in their uniqueness, beings who are not exhausted by the city in their meaning or destiny. The "bearing" of the experience of Plato for our time, Pieper's question in the beginning of these considerations, seems to be that experientially, philosophy and worship cannot exclude each other. The ultimate risk, therefore, for the city is the elevation of this exclusion of revelation from political philosophy not only to a principle, but to a principle of power subject to nothing but itself. The first task of intellectual freedom remains the articulation of how this conclusion was reached in the history of political philosophy. Without this history, it would seem, revelation will tend to explain itself in terms of a modern ideology that, in its origin, knowingly or not, is a denial of a metaphysics and revelation. Revelation itself will be posed in terms of the human project that has already excluded anything but man himself.
In the end, to paraphrase Leo Strauss in City and Man, it is necessary for everyone to listen to the Divine message of the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City, to see whether its outlines are proposed in terms of man left to himself. The intellectual alternatives to metaphysics and revelation are posed in terms of man's own powers that have replaced any freshness from what is, from the ground of being, from that source that caused man to be man in the first place.
"Man transcends the city," Leo Strauss maintained, "only by pursuing true happiness, not by pursuing happiness however understood." What jeopardizes political societies today is not "to what extent man could discern the outlines of that City (of Righteousness) if left to himself," but rather, on finally knowing this extent, what is it that the Faithful City teaches to the questions posed by the political philosophers? The crisis of political philosophy, in this sense, stems from a crisis in theology, a crisis caused by the imitation of the modern political philosophers by these same theologians who have prevented us from hearing of the true City of Righteousness.