Political Order

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.

All things whate’er they be / Have order among themselves, and this is form, / That makes the universe resemble God.” Thus Beatrice at the beginning of the Paradiso, and I have argued that her thesis has a high degree of theological certitude. The primary intrinsic good of creation as whole (superior to the merely proper good of any one creature) is the good of order. The beauty of the order of the whole of creation resembles God most of all His creatures, and it is what he primarily intends in creation. This order was corrupted by sin, but restored by Christ it will be perfectly fulfilled in the eternal peace of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

How are earthly, political orders related to the order of the Heavenly City? A fashionable interpretation of St Augustine’s City of God  see the earthly, temporal order as being an entirely useful good; tranquility in temporal things secures to us the necessities of life and allows us to devote ourselves to the cultivation of the virtues, but the peace of the heavenly city is an entirely eschatological affair in which earthly peace has no participation. I think this interpretation of St Augustine is wrong. Tracy Rowland has written a clever paper (unfortunately behind a pay wall) arguing that in fact St Augustine is far closer to St Thomas–if one resists the Actonian reading of St Thomas as a proto-Whig.

read St Thomas as synthesizing the Platonic view of man as a microcosmos with Aristotle’s doctrine of the common good. Man as uniting spiritual and material creation is able to mirror the order of all creation in his soul, both by knowledge and by (as it were) imitation. But as Aristotle says:

Even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. (Ethics 1094b)

It is good for man to realize the order of the universe in his own soul but it is more godlike for him to realize it in the state. St Thomas takes this more godlike very literally; the community of men reflects God more than an individual man just as the universe reflects Him more perfectly than any one creature.

But the claim that politics is concerned with ordering human community to reflect the order of all creation raises (as Matt points out) a lot of questions: How does one know what that order is? Or, even if one does how does one know how it ought to be instantiated among men?

Long ago I argued two things from this view of political order. First, that it implies that political community ought to be ordered in a non-egalitarian, hierarchical manner. And second that insofar as modern democracy runs on the principle of “self-interest well understood,” i.e. on the principle that one ought to serve the political order because it enables one to realize one’s own private goods, it is a tyranny of the many. For, the very definition of tyranny is that the tyrant orders the common good to his private good. I still hold those two theses today, but Matt is surely right that are many difficulties with both of them. To the first one can ask: how exactly does political realm reflect the order of all creation? Is it supposed to imitate the hierarchy of the angels? But that is based on an inequality of natures — men are all of one nature. Is it supposed to be more like a biological ecosystem? But, Matt writes,

how does that work in nature? We keep discovering how complex this is, in the sense that there are so many parts and they all seem to work together in ways that baffle us. In fact, in nature we find that the order is often NOT led from the top, consiously speaking. We find instead instinct and a collaboration of individuals in ways that surprise us, with no obvious planning leader present. And is the universe not affected by the fall? Regardless, men are. So what this hierarchy is and ought to be is certainly something that is in dispute.

Against the second thesis Matt urges that in fact the American Republic is not so clearly a tyranny of the many I claim. He argues, for instance, that the Constitution  is in fact designed to limit popular rule for the sake of the common good, to enable the emergence of an aristocracy which would explicitly try to serve the public good rather than themselves. Further, that America in fact has a deep concern for order and hierarchy, and that unbridled secular liberalism is even now a much reviled extreme position, and so on.

At some point I would like to address these difficulties in detail, but as I happen to be working on two different writing projects at the moment that are connected to each of the theses to which Matt objects, I shall try first to do two parallel series of posts taken from those projects.

The first project is a talk I am to give on Empire and Providence in Virgil, Augustine and Dante. Virgil’s disagreements with Plato and Aristotle about the proper size of political community and with Lucretius on the role of the divine in human life both hinge on questions of the very nature and purpose of political order. Augustine and Dante then offer rival visions of how Virgil’s vision can be corrected or perfected by the Christian faith.

The second project is an interpretation of §19 of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King – the so-called “civics chapter” – which I am working on for my dissertation.


One thought on “Political Order

  1. Great post. I don’t like where Rowland goes with it all…but I appreciate that point, and agree with it. “St Thomas (as I read him) sees order as the primary intrinsic common good of political society.” Amen. Order, and hence, justice between human beings. That IS the key point.

    My problem is more with the leap to historical reality, although I don’t deny that the particular vice of our society is as you say. That is the shade towards which we are always tending, no doubt.


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