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
hanc olim veteres vitam coluere Sabini,
hanc Remus et frater, sic fortis Etruria crevit
scilicet et rerum facta est pulcherrima Roma,
septemque una sibi muro circumdedit arces.
Such a life the old Sabines once lived, such Remus and his brother. Thus, surely, Etruria waxed strong; and Rome has thus become the fairest thing on earth, and with a single city’s wall enclosed her seven hills. (Virgil, Georgics 2.532-534)
O Roma felix, quae duorum Principum
Es consecrata glorioso sanguine:
Horum cruore purpurata ceteras
Excellis orbis una pulchritudines.
O happy Rome! who in thy martyr princes’ blood,
A twofold stream, art washed and doubly sanctified.
All earthly beauty thou alone outshinest far,
Empurpled by their outpoured life-blood’s glorious tide. (Hymn at Vespers of the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul)
Romulus excipiet gentem, et Mavortia condet
moenia, Romanosque suo de nomine dicet.
His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono;
imperium sine fine dedi…
Then Romulus his grandsire’s throne shall gain,
Of martial tow’rs the founder shall become,
The people Romans call, the city Rome.
To them no bounds of empire I assign,
Nor term of years to their immortal line. (Aeneid, I.276-279)
Mundi Magister, atque caeli Janitor,
Romae parentes, arbitrique gentium,
Per ensis ille, hic per crucis victor necem
Vitae senatum laureati possident.
The teacher of the world and keeper of heaven’s gate,
Rome’s founders twain and rulers too of every land,
Triumphant over death by sword and shameful cross,
With laurel crowned are gathered to the eternal band. (Hymn at Vespers of the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul)
But, besides that reverence which today’s festival has gained from all the world, it is to be honoured with special and peculiar exultation in our city, that there may be a predominance of gladness on the day of their martyrdom in the place where the chief of the Apostles met their glorious end. For these are the men, through whom the light of Christ’s gospel shone on you, O Rome, and through whom you, who wast the teacher of error, wast made the disciple of Truth. These are your holy Fathers and true shepherds, who gave you claims to be numbered among the heavenly kingdoms, and built you under much better and happier auspices than they, by whose zeal the first foundations of your walls were laid: and of whom the one that gave you your name defiled you with his brother’s blood. These are they who promoted you to such glory, that being made a holy nation, a chosen people, a priestly and royal state, and the head of the world through the blessed Peter’s holy See you attained a wider sway by the worship of God than by earthly government. For although you were increased by many victories, and extended your rule on land and sea, yet what your toils in war subdued is less than what the peace of Christ has conquered. For the good, just, and Almighty God, [...] by lowering His Nature to the uttermost has raised our nature to the highest. But that the result of this unspeakable Grace might be spread abroad throughout the world, God’s Providence made ready the Roman empire, whose growth has reached such limits that the whole multitude of nations are brought into close connection. For the Divinely-planned work particularly required that many kingdoms should be leagued together under one empire, so that the preaching of the world might quickly reach to all people, when they were held beneath the rule of one state. (St Leo the Great, Sermon on the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul)
ch’e’ fu de l’alma Roma e di suo impero
ne l’empireo ciel per padre eletto:
la quale e ’l quale, a voler dir lo vero,
fu stabilita per lo loco santo
u’ siede il successor del maggior Piero.
Per quest’andata onde li dai tu vanto,
intese cose che furon cagione
di sua vittoria e del papale ammanto.
For he* was of great Rome, and of her empire
In the empyreal heaven as father chosen;
The which and what, wishing to speak the truth,
Were stablished as the holy place, wherein
Sits the successor of the greatest Peter.
Upon this journey, whence thou givest him vaunt,
Things did he hear, which the occasion were
Both of his victory and the papal mantle. (Dante, Inf. 2.20-28)
At one point in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech (embedded above; transcript here) David Foster Wallace describes in brilliantly vivid detail the frustrations of standing in line in a supermarket. Our default setting, he says is to burn with impotent rage against the dreariness, misery, and stupidity of the situation. But this is not the only option: 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
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
Modern theology has become a dreadfully soft, sissyish affair. I suppose the remote causes lie in the Enlightenment reaction to the polemics following the Protestant Reformation, and that more proximate causes can be found in the 20th century dialectical dance between liberalism and totalitarianism, the rise of pop-psychology etc.
Nowhere does this softness manifest itself more than in modern theologian’s attitude towards Hell. Continue reading