Does the American political tradition at its best consider the good of the republic to be something good in itself, an honest good, or merely a useful good, an instrument to aid citizens in the attainment of their private goods? In a recent discussion of this question a friend of mine proposed looking at American patriotic poetry rather than political treatises. His idea, if I understand him aright, is that while on a theoretical level American political thought has tended to deny the primacy of the common good, the American people have a natural and implicit love for and understanding of the true political good, and this is expressed in their patriotic songs etc. This points to an interesting tension in modern liberal democracies between their theoretical self-understanding and the image of themselves that the must propose to the imagination of their citizens. Continue reading
Just in case there are any Sancrucensis readers who don’t now this already: the Charles De Koninck Project has launched a website, on which they are planning to make all the writings of that great 20th century Thomist available in English.
I began to be formed by De Koninck before having read any of his books, as I read Aristotle and St Thomas at a college founded by his students. When I finally read his book on the Common Good the effect was intoxicating. (When my father first read this book he was waiting for a plane in the airport. It absorbed him so completely that he missed his plane, not noticing that they called his name several times). And then I read Ego Sapientia, and was even more overwhelmed.
Today sees the opening of the opening of the “Oekonomika” Institute in Vienna: a think-tank on applied economics and political philosophy that takes the Aristotelian tradition and Catholic Social Teaching seriously. I’ve mentioned these people over on Modestinus’ blog. Here’s a snip from one of their statements:
In contrast to the contemporary tendency to make the economy an end in itself, the tradition of the Christian West includes the “art of household-management” (along with ethics and politics) in practical philosophy. Economic agents are not merely driven about by blind economic “laws” such as “supply and demand,” but able, through the practice of virtue, to act in accordance with truly human ends in the economic sphere.
Economics has a subordinate role in relation to ethics and politics. It is therefore necessary for a true understanding of the proper measure in economic matters to concern oneself with virtuous action and the goals of political life. For the existence of human institutions ought only to be justified by their supporting the common good and assisting human persons in the quest for a happy life.
Thomistica.net in a post on Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan’s much ridiculed claim to be a follower of St Thomas Aquinas rather than Ayn Rand has linked to an article pointing out that Ayn Rand herself was an admire of the Angelic Doctor. It seems that she admired his epistemology mostly. I haven’t read much Rand, but as far as I can tell her ethics bear a resemblance to a certain influential, though disastrously wrong, interpretation of St Thomas and Aristotle. Take this passage of “The Objectivist Ethics“:
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.
As today is Bastille Day and I happen to be in France I want to post something fittingly royalist. I have just been reading Alan Fimister’s fascinating book on Catholic social teaching and the founding of the EU: Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe. According to Fimister, Robert Schuman – the French foreign minister considered the “father” of the EU – so closely conformed to the model of politician that Pope Leo XIII envisioned that “if he were a saint of the dark ages historians would assume his ‘life’ was largely fictional” (p.28). This means that he was a republican — that is, he was part of the movement of “ralliement,” of rallying to the Republic on the basis of the fact that a republican form of government is not per se contrary to the natural law. Nevertheless, Schuman account of how the sentiments of patriotism were first wakened in his heart is just what a monarchist would desire. It was in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where Schuman happened to have been born:
It is in Luxembourg that I acquired the first notions of patriotism. It was in 1890 under the Grand Ducal balcony. The people acclaimed Grand Duke Adolf who came to make his solemn entry into the capital. I was a little boy of four years old lost in the crowd. I was enflamed by its enthusiasm and taken up in its pride. With everyone else I sang -as best I could [tant bien que mal]- the Fierewonn : ‘Wir welle ja ken Preisse sin’ – before all else we didn’t want to be Prussians. I only came to know the Marseillaise later. Henceforth I knew what it is to love one’s country, and the attachment to the sovereign who personifies and guarantees the unity, continuity and independence of the nation. (p. 145)
This is a marvelous demonstration of St Thomas’s principle that the common good exists primarily in the sovereign:
Since love looks to the good, there is a diversity of love according as there is a diversity of the good. There is, however, a certain good proper to each man considered as one person, and as far as loving this good is concerned, each one is the principal object of his own love. But there is a certain common good which pertains to this man or that man insofar as he is considered as part of a whole; thus there is a certain common good pertaining to a soldier considered as part of the army, or to a citizen as part of the state. As far as loving this common good is concerned, the principal object of love is that in which the good primarily exists; just as the good of the army is in the general, or the good of the state is in the king. Whence, it is the duty of a good soldier that he neglects even his own safety in order to save the good of his general. (De virtutibus, q. 2 a. 4 ad 2)
labor omnia uicit improbus et duris – Geor. I,145-146
In Spe Salvi, no. 15 the Holy Father notes that Christian Monasticism inherited its teaching on the nobility of work from Judaism. That may be, but St Benedict’s doctrine of manual labor is also influenced by Virgil’s Georgics. At least that is what Theodor Haecker claims in his book Virgil: Father of the West:
The First Monks of the West had St Benedict as their spiritual father, but their worldly father was Virgil. They did not scruple to bring Virgil’s Georgics with them – along with the Holy Scriptures and the Rule. They set out for the North as sons of St Benedict to clear the “forests” of wild souls and to cultivate them for the reception of the word of God, and this they did through their orare through their prayer; but they also set out as sons of Virgil to clear the forests of the wild lands and to cultivate them for the reception of grain and vine, and this they achieved through their laborare, through work ‘in the sweat of their brow’ – a biblical expression which is still the best translation for the Virgilian labor improbus. They were Benedictines according the order of grace, Virgilians according the order of nature.
Through the magic of google books I find someone has made a close comparison of the Holy Rule with the Georgics:
In its emphasis upon regulation, [Renaissance georgic] literature has much in common with the spiritual “georgic” of St. Benedict, the Rule. Benedict’s Rule is founded in the “Roman” idea that common proﬁt should take precedence over individual. He consequently seeks to create a rule that can be internalized by each member of the order. He addresses the reader as “son,” recommending that his spiritual son welcome the “labor of obedience” in order to help create the Lord’s community. He describes the “instrumenta bonorum operum” that the monk will need to build this community as love of God, humility, obedience, self-command, and patience. He divides the day and the year into cycles of spiritual labor (the “opus dei”). He insists upon daily manual labor, saying that idleness (“otiositas”) is inimical to the soul. Labor (as opposed to idleness), the common good (as opposed to individual satisfaction or sorrow), order taken into the soul and then imposed on the cycles of nature: these are the themes of the literature of the household, whether that household is a Roman villa [or] a Christian monastery [... and these themes are] georgic. (Lynn Staley)
Haecker, on the next page from the above text, makes a stab at showing the Georgics as the foundation of Western “culture”:
The word “culture”, which today preoccupies and moves all minds of the West, does not come from the Greeks, who otherwise gave us almost all catholic words, but it is rather the gift of Roman farmers and signifies the essence and art of cultivating land. Culture is the inseparable unity of three things:  a given inanimate or animate matter, which man does not make, but from which he is himself made, of which he is himself a part; on which  the mediating labor improbus of man must necessarily be imposed; and from the union of these two – the first of which the first of which is gratuitous the second has the charachter of meritorious works – comes  the perfection of the fruit [...]
He goes on at great length. The passage seems to have influenced T.S. Eliot, who read Haecker carefully:
There is I think no precedent for the spirit of the Georgics, and the attitude towards the soil, and the labour of the soil, which is there expressed, is something that we ought to find particularly intelligible now, when urban agglomeration, the flight from the land, the pillage of the earth and the squandering of natural resources are beginning to attract attention. It was the Greeks who taught us the dignity of leisure; it is from them that we inherit the perception that the highest life is the life of contemplation. But this respect for leisure, with the Greeks, was accompanied by a contempt for the banausic occupations. Virgil perceived that agriculture is fundamental to civilization, and he affirmed the dignity of manual labour. (“Virgil and the Christian World” - helpfully posted by laudator temporis acti)
Sometimes when sancrucensis is writing a paper he comes to a point where he has to take a break and do something else to take his mind of it, but then that something else becomes a kind of projection screen on which the paper takes new form. Continue reading
If Virgil is in some ways a follower of Plato, Plato would certainly not have agreed with him on the need for world empire. Like most of the Greeks Plato thought that a limited population was necessary for a good political community. The Greek view seems to have been formed by the experience of the war with Persia. In book VII of Herodotus’ Histories Demaratus famously tells Xerxes that the Greeks will win for, Continue reading
Virgil is a very philosophical poet. In his famous essay on the Aenead Jacob Klein quotes the following note from an early life of Virgil:
Although [Virgil] seems to have put the opinions of diverse philosophers into his writings with most serious intent, he himself was a devotee of the Academy; for he preferred Plato’s views to all the others.
I am going try to show something of Virgil’s political philosophy, and how it responds to Plato, but before doing that I ought to do a post on Virgil as a poet. Let me begin with the famous lines that are supposed to sum up the whole spirit of Virgil: Continue reading
Matthew Peterson has posted some trenchant objections to a post of mine on the American Revolution. The main point of my post was a contrast between the way political order is viewed in the modern social imaginary vs. the way it was “imagined” in ancient and medieval societies. While in the modern social imaginary (and in modern political theory) political order is not seen as something good in itself, but only as an instrument to the realization of other goods, in the ancient/medieval imaginary political order was seen as something in itself good. St Thomas (as I read him) sees order as the primary intrinsic common good of political society. Continue reading