The Politics of Nostalgia

A few days ago I was in Bratislava to give a lecture at the “Hanus Days,” organized by the Ladislav Hanus Fellowship. One of their organizers had read my undergraduate thesis on monarchy, and had decided to invite me to speak on monarchy and democracy. It was good fun preparing. My basic position hasn’t changed much in eight years, but I think that I at least have a better understanding of the strength of the democratic position now from reading defenses from very different perspectives, including Aelianus on “Arthurian Republicanism,” Matthew Peterson on the common good and the American founders, and Owen White’s defense of leftist egalitarianism (see e.g. his comments on Daniel Nichols’s blog here and here).

I was very impressed by the people from the Ladislav Hanus Fellowship–by their hospitality, their eagerness to think things through, and the excellent questions they raised in the discussion.

I’ve embedded the lecture above, and put the text on scribd and below (for those who prefer html).


I am very pleased to have been invited to speak here at the Pistori Palace this evening. I have been told that this palace is closely associated with the disastrous political ideologies of the last century. During the Second World War it housed the representatives of National Socialist Germany, and later it became a Lenin Museum. This evening I am going to be criticising an aspect of the dominant political ideology of our own time: liberalism. The history of liberalism in the last century is one of extraordinary triumph. After being widely questioned in the early part of the century, it triumphed over its totalitarian rivals, and today it surrounds like the air we breath, so that many of its ideas seem to people to be self-evident truisms. I am going to examine one example of this: the idea that democracy is the best form of government. Today it seems obvious to most people that democracy is the only reasonable form of government—indeed, even the only legitimate form of government. Democracy has become almost a synonym for legitimate government, for the rule of law. “Undemocratic” has become a synonym for “tyrannical,” for a regime unconcerned with the good of the people.

Even those who are weary of the hypocrisy, vulgarity, and pettiness of democratic politics—the short-sightedness and divisiveness of politicians always looking toward the next election, the manipulation of the process through private interests, the dominance of prejudice over reason, and so on—even people who are sick of such politics cannot conceive of any un-democratic alternative.

Thus the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the United States, weary of the mock representation of the people through magistrates who serve the interests of the “one percent,” on whom they are financially dependent, can only propose a different model of democracy—a more direct, Athenian style democracy—as a means to promote the common welfare. They do not dare to state the seeming implication of their criticism of the status quo: that democracy itself is part of the problem.

On a very different part of the ideological map one finds political strongmen such as Vladimir Putin. Fed up with the democratic chaos of the Yeltsin years, and the extraordinary loss of Russian power that they caused, Putin establishes an autocratic rule. And yet despite his evident contempt for democracy he thinks it necessary to go through democratic rituals of legitimation: elections, referenda, etc.

Why is it that even the enemies of democracy—American anarchists and Russian autocrats—have to pay lip-service to this form of governance?

It was not always so. The greatest philosophers of antiquity—Plato and Aristotle—both considered democracy a rather inferior form of political life. Plato has Socrates claim that democratic citizens are dominated by licentious passion rather than reason: “they call insolence good education; anarchy, freedom; wastefulness, magnificence; and shamelessness, courage” (Republic 560e). He says that it is the sort of regime favoured by children and women—i.e. those in whom reason is weak (Republic 557c). Aristotle distinguishes between good forms of government, in which the rulers have the common good of the whole city as their goal, and bad ones, in which they rule for their own private interests. He gives the name “democracy” to one of the bad regimes: that in which the poor rule for the private advantage of their own class (Politics 1279a-b). In the Christian Middle Ages monarchy rather than democracy was the most common form of government, and to many medieval thinkers this seemed perfectly reasonable.[1]

The great transformation that brought the modern world into being changed things, but this transformation took many centuries, and many resisted it—especially Catholics. When revolutionaries killed King Louis XVI of France, Pope Pius VI commented as follows:

By a conspiracy of impious men, the most Christian king Louis XVI has been condemned to death, and the sentence has been carried out. But what sort of a sentence this was, and with what reason it was passed, We will briefly call to your attention: it was brought about without authority and without law by the National Convention – for that Convention, when the form of the more excellent monarchical regime had been abolished, placed all public power at the disposal of the People, who are governed by no reason or counsel; who perceive no distinction of things; who judge few things by truth, and many by opinion; who are inconstant, and easy to deceive and lead into every base deed; who are ungrateful, arrogant, and cruel; who rejoice in human blood, in slaughter and in funerals; and who are filled with pleasure by the pains of the dying, just as was seen in the amphitheaters of the ancients.[2]

At the time, his reaction was by no means extraordinary.

I want to examine why it is that today most people think about democracy and monarchy so differently from Pius VI. I will first consider the view of politics that one finds in the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages: the ideal of Catholic monarchy that comes from a synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian theology. I then want to explain why modernity sees democracy as the best form of government, and how this is connected to the modern rejection of classical philosophy and the Christian faith. I shall argue that modern preference for democracy is unreasonable, that it flows from a false conception of the end or goal of political life, a false conception of the common good, and a false conception of the source of political authority. And then I shall ask whether any practical consequences can be drawn from my position; after all, it is hardly likely that there will be a restoration of the monarchy here in central Europe any time soon, and it is unclear how one could work for such a thing, if at all. I shall argue that nevertheless there are practical consequences—although it is not feasible to work directly for a restoration, one can work toward a more authentic realization of the common good. Moreover, seeing through the false self-evidence of liberal politics allows one to gain a necessary critical distance from the ideology of our time, thus allowing one to resist certain evils more effectively.


I. The Discarded Image

A. The Purpose of Government

Classical Greek political philosophy was deeply marked by the experience of the war with Persia. In Herodotus’ Histories the Greek Demaratus tells Xerxes, the Persian tyrant, that the Greeks will win, despite having many fewer men than the Persians:

They are free, yet not wholly free: law is their master, whom they fear much more than your men fear you. They do whatever it bids; and its bidding is always the same, that they must never flee from the battle before any multitude of men, but must abide at their post and there conquer or die.[3]

The reason why the Greeks win is that unlike the Persians they are not the slaves of passion, they are the “slaves” of law. To be ruled by law is to be ruled by reason, since law is a decision based on reason. And this will become the Greek notion of freedom: the rule of reason. To be ruled by reason means to be free, because it means understanding what is really good, what is really desirable, not being moved by a passing feeling toward an action which one knows does not really lead to anything good. The achievement of the true good is happiness, and since everyone wants to be happy, a law which “forces” one to do good and to avoid evil does not limit freedom, but rather makes the one who follows it free; able to achieve what he really, deep down, wants.

This conception of law presupposes that there is really an objective good that is knowable by human reason. Socrates argues this point with the sophists of his day. They hold that in fact there is no true good. “Justice is the advantage of the stronger.” That is to say, what people happen to desire they call good, and if they are strong enough they force everyone to submit to their desire and they call this justice. But Socrates argues against this that there is indeed an objective good. The good is indeed what we desire, but it is not good because we desire it, but on the contrary we desire it because it is good; desire is awakened by the good when we recognize it.

So why doesn’t everyone desire what is really good? The problem is that there are different powers in the human soul; there are the senses (touch, taste and so on) and then there is reason. The senses know a limited kind of goodness, and from this kind of knowledge come certain passions such as hunger and thirst and lust. Only reason knows the complete good, wherein happiness really lies, and understands it as good. Thus reason has to order and moderate the passions. Unfortunately most persons are like the Persian soldiers; there is a disorder in the soul with the passions dominating reason. So man has to be educated, and habituated to act in an orderly way so that reason will rule over the passions. On this account, law has an educative task; it is meant to train the human soul, to order it, to help produce a harmony among its different parts, in which reason has the first place. This harmony is called virtue.

This harmony in the soul is more than a merely useful thing. It is not as though virtue is merely a means to getting the good, something that makes you more effective at getting the truly desirable good. Virtue is itself good, and it is a participation in a higher good. As Socrates says:

For he, Adeimantus, whose mind is fixed upon true being […] his eye is ever directed towards things fixed and immutable, which he sees neither injuring nor injured by one another, but all in order moving according to reason; these he imitates, and to these he will, as far as he can, conform himself. […] And the philosopher holding converse with the divine order, becomes orderly and divine, as far as the nature of man allows […] And if a necessity be laid upon him of fashioning, not only himself, but human nature generally, whether in States or individuals, into that which he beholds elsewhere, will he, think you, be an unskilful artificer of justice, temperance, and every civil virtue? […] And if the world perceives that what we are saying about him is the truth, will they be angry with philosophy? Will they disbelieve us, when we tell them that no State can be happy which is not designed by artists who imitate the heavenly pattern? (Republic 500)

I consider this to be one of the profoundest insights of Platonic philosophy: the human good is a participation in a higher, divine good. Thus our good exists not principally in our selves, but principally in the divine realm, and secondarily in ourselves. The divine good is more our own good than the good which exists in our own souls.

This Platonic insight was developed by St. Augustine and then further developed by St. Thomas who synthesized it with Aristotle’s account of the common good.

Note the importance of order in Plato’s text. The divine order (harmony, beauty) is reflected in the order of the eternal forms, this is reflected in the visible cosmos, in the order of the virtuous soul, and in the order of the just political community.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that order is what God principally intends in creation: every individual creature reflects some aspect of God’s glory, but it is the order, the harmony, the beauty of their unity, that most perfectly reflects the creator:

The multitude and distinction of things has been planned by the divine mind and has been instituted in the real world so that created things would represent the divine goodness in various ways and diverse beings would participate in it in different degrees, so that out of the order of diverse beings a certain beauty would arise in things.[4]

At the beginning of Dante’s Paradiso Beatrice makes the same point:

e cominciò: Le cose tutte quante
hanno ordine tra loro, e questo è forma
che l’universo a Dio fa simigliante.

And she began: All things whate’er they be
Have order among themselves, and this is form,
That makes the universe resemble God. (Canto 1)

The order of the whole of creation is what Charles De Koninck calls “the good of the universe” and “God’s manifestation outside Himself.” Man as the micro-cosmos can reflect this order in his own person through virtue. This is why virtue can be identified with happiness— because virtue is a participation in that order which is the greatest image of the divine beauty and goodness. And the order in a community is an even greater participation in the universal order. This is what Augustine shows with his analysis of the praises of “peace” in the Psalms: “If I forget you, O City of Peace, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!(Psalm 137/136:5-6)[5]

This is also how St. Thomas understands Aristotle’s teaching on the primacy of the common good. Aristotle writes the following:

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 (Nicomachean 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. Recall what I said about participation a moment ago: my own good exists more in the divine than in my individual existence. A corollary can now be seen: the common good, the order of the community, is more my good than any private good of mine. The common good of order or peace is common in fullest sense of the word: all the members of the community share it without it being divided or lessened by this sharing. Thus the common good is not merely a useful good; it is not merely the conditions that enable individuals to get what they want. It is the best good that individuals can have, it is that in which they find their happiness.[6]

Let me sum up the argument so far. The conception of politics that began with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and that was developed by the great Christian thinkers, sees man as having an objective good. This good is a participation in the divine good, and consists primarily in the unity of order or harmony. This unity of order exists in the individual soul through virtue and in the community through peace. Law is ordered to producing this unity of order, both in the individual soul, and more especially in the community. Thus St. Thomas defines law as follows: “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated” (STh IIaIIae, q.90 a.4 c).

Law derives its legitimacy from the good to which it is ordered; if it is ordered to the true common good then it is binding on all its subjects—not in a way that enslaves them, but in a way that makes them free. Similarly the ruler, who makes and administers the law, has his authority from the common good; to the extent that he serves the authentic common good he has legitimate authority and is not imposing on anyone. Legitimacy on this view does not depend on the “consent of the governed” given through democratic rituals, but rather it depends on the objective good.

B. The Form of Government

Since the purpose of government is to produce an order in the community which is an imitation of a higher order, it is necessary to determine where exactly that higher order is to be found, how it is to be known, and in what way the political order is to imitate it. For many of the ancients that order was visible in the stars—which they thought of as eternal, immutable, living beings—but they were wrong about the stars. In Plato the divine order is found principally in the ideal forms, which are not visible to the senses, but can be apprehended by the intellect. But Plato’s application of this order to the city is never presented in a straightforward way. In the Republic he spends the greatest amount of time “constructing” a city that is dominated by thymos, by passion, rather than by reason, since his interlocutors are not yet ready to comprehend the city of logos.[7]

In Christian thought the model for the “divine” order is the “city of God,” the spiritual community composed principally of the hierarchies of the angels, in all their myriad myriads, to whom the saints are then joined. The “order of the universe” is principally an order of persons, related in a hierarchy of governance and subordination.[8] St. Thomas Aquinas is called the “Angelic” Doctor because of the clarity with which he investigated that order.

But how is the model of the heavenly city to be applied to the earthly city? Dante’s Commedia is one of the finest examples of how this is done. The “dark woods” at the beginning of the Inferno is the loss of order both in Dante’s soul (the loss of virtue), and in Italy as a whole (the loss of political peace).[9] Dante’s journey through the divine order manifested in the punishment of the damned, the purification of the Church suffering, and the glory of the angels and saints, is the means not only to recovering virtue in his own soul, but also to showing Italy the solution to its woes.

One thing that Dante learns is that it necessary for good political order to have a monarch. This is shown in poetic mode in the Commedia, but Dante also argued for it more pedantically in the De Monarchia. The De Monarchia is principally about the necessity for a universal monarchy, but the argument can also be used to show why a monarchy is preferable to a polyarchy in a particular state. Dante gives a number of arguments, but the most illuminating (from my perspective) are those that proceed from the idea of imitating the divine order. In I,VIII he argues that God makes everything to “represent the divine likeness in so far as their peculiar nature is able to receive it,” but the human race is most like him when it is one, and it is most one when it has one ruler. Similarly, in I,IX he argues that humanity imitates the heavens (meaning presumably the stars, but the angelic hierarchies could have been taken as the middle term instead). Now, the heavens are moved by a single mover, therefore men should be ruled by a single monarch. These arguments are applied to the order that ought to obtain in humanity as a whole, but they are even more applicable to a particular state, where a more closely knit community is possible.

Dante’s arguments are very similar to those presented by St. Thomas Aquinas in the De Regno. St. Thomas there argues that monarchy is the best form of government since that which is itself one is better able to cause unity. But unity is the primary purpose of government, because government is for the sake of the common good, and the common good consists in a kind of unity (namely a unity of order that reflects the divine beauty).[10]

But of course there are different forms of monarchy. The kind favored by St. Thomas is not a pure monarchy, but one that is moderated by aristocratic and democratic elements to preserve the monarch from falling into tyranny, and to keep him in contact with the different parts of society. St. Thomas proposes that the aristocratic element be elected by and from the people, thus providing for a democratic element.[11] But here I disagree with St. Thomas. Most people are ruled by passion, and it requires education to acquire virtue and responsibility. Experience teaches that an hereditary aristocracy, in which the members are raised with a sense of responsibility and noblesse oblige, is better able to bring to the fore a virtuous elite than popular election, which tends to bring ambitious liars to the top. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the great Thomist theologian, writes:

Any regime which favors the ambition of demagogues who flatter the people in order to arrive at power, leads to political pharisaism and to ruin, for there is no durable union except in truth and justice.[12]

Thus Lagrange proposes another way of including the aristocratic and democratic elements in a monarchy. He proposes the model of medieval France:

Under the ancien régime in France, the interests of the different classes of society and of the different regions were represented by the corporations and their delegates, by the provincial Estates, and by the Estates General: assembly of clergy, of the nobility, and of the third estate.[13]

The prevention of the rise of ambitious demagogues is also one of the reasons why I think that hereditary monarchy is superior to elected monarchy. Another reason is that election of the monarch tends to cause faction among the people, weakening their unity by causing enmity between the supporters of rival candidates. This is a grave disadvantage, because the monarch ought to instantiate the unity of the whole community. As St. Thomas writes:

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).

A great republican statesman, Robert Schuman, the father of the European Union, describes his own experience of this:

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. […] 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.[14]

This function of the monarch is fulfilled much better if he is the descendent of the kings for whom my ancestors shed their blood, than if he’s just some bloke elected by a party to which I don’t even belong.

An obvious objection to the hereditary system is that it often results in fools or evil men becoming kings. This is a great disadvantage, but as the libertarian philosopher and economist Hans Hermann Hoppe points out,[15] if one compares the record of hereditary monarchs to that of elected rulers, the system of hereditary monarchy actually harbors fewer fools and villains.


II. The Wasteland

Now I turn to the question of how the classical conception of politics that I have just tried to explain was replaced by the modern one with which we are all familiar. I will only be able to give a few brief hints about this, because this was an extremely complex process: the genesis of the modern world.

One way of stating what happened is that freedom was disengaged from the good. Modern thought beginning already in the late middle ages with nominalism, but more in Renaissance humanism, and then fully in the Enlightenment, begins to see freedom not as “slavery to the law” as Herodotus did, but rather as deciding for oneself what to do, without any determination from without, not even determination by the objective good. Freedom is seen as an arbitrary choice in nominalism. In humanism the very indeterminacy of this free choice begins to be seen as the root of man’s dignity. Man does not have dignity because he can understand what is truly good and attain it; rather man has dignity because he can decide for himself wherein he wants to find his good, his end. We see this view in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man—although Pico sometimes makes use of the older notion of freedom as well. Freedom thus comes to be seen as primarily freedom from any interference with free choice, freedom from any kind of coercion.

After the wars of religion that followed the Reformation this position was supported and aided by a similar but less radical view. Namely the view that the objective good for man is too hard to know, too difficult to agree about, that in order to avoid the bloodshed of religious wars, it is necessary to limit politics to the care of a bare minimum of peace necessary to allow for the non-violent coexistence of persons with different views of what the true good is.

For both of these views the end of politics came to be seen as the securing of rights—the prevention of interference with people’s freedom.

In early modern thinkers such as Hobbes this view of politics was used to support a new kind of monarchy: absolutism. This was a corrupt form of monarchy, that instead of seeing the monarch as the principle of a beautiful harmony and order, saw him as the manager of a huge bureaucratic machine that was set up to give people security and allow them to get what they wanted. Later thinkers such as Locke came to see that the machine didn’t need the sovereign at the top; it could run on its own.

This view corresponded to a new cosmology, a new view of nature. It was this new cosmology, in my opinion, that did most to make modern political philosophy plausible to people. The spectacular success of modern natural science, and the technological developments that it enabled, have had a profound effect on our mentality; they have become inscribed in the very “material relations” of daily life through the industrial-capitalist economy. It is the mechanistic mentality fostered by capitalism and reductive natural science that makes modern political views seem so obvious.

Modern natural science begins with the decision of thinkers such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, to find a way of looking at nature that will enable man to have power over nature, to dominate it. The older, Aristotelian view had seen the purpose of science as understanding the world as it is. Thus for Aristotelian science the most important thing to study had been the good—what is the good that nature tries to achieve, what is the goal that a particular natural thing strives for and so on. But in the new science such questions became irrelevant. If the purpose of science is power over nature, then the whole point is not to find the goals that nature herself pursues, but to replace them with my own goals. Modern natural science thus began to ignore any aspect of reality that did not fit with this project. This would not in itself be problematic as a limited method for particular purposes, but of course it became a total way of looking at nature. Nature came to be seen as a giant machine—moved not by the attraction of the good, but by blind, mathematically defined “forces.”[16]

This view of nature inevitably affected the view of human nature. So we see, for example, that in psychology since Freud, human desire tends to be seen as kind of a blind force that randomly attaches itself to various objects—not as a something that is aroused by the objective goodness of things.

All this supports the idea of politics as ordered to allowing people the freedom to pursue whatever they happen to desire, without interference from anyone else. The older idea of law as educative, as that which orders persons and peoples toward their true good, then appears as tyrannical, as against freedom.

Thus, what I have called the more radical idea of the separation of freedom and the good is becoming ever more dominant in our society. The Supreme Court of the United States explicitly stated this idea of freedom in 1992:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.[17]

On this account of freedom, if the state were to attempt to order its subjects to an authentic good it would be disrespecting their dignity as persons.

And so we can see a first reason why democracy seems so plausible to our contemporaries. Democracy gives people the illusion of being involved in making the laws. Thus to obey the law is really to obey oneself. The philosopher George Santayana once made this remark about the apparent futility of parliamentary institutions:

Those who spoke spoke badly, with imperfect knowledge of the matter in hand, and simply to air their prejudices. The rest hardly listened. If there was a vote, it revealed not the results of the debate, but the previous and settled sentiments of the voters. The uselessness and the poor quality of the whole performance were so evident that it surprised me to see that so many intelligent men—for they were intelligent when doing their special work—should tamely waste so much time in keeping up the farce. But parliamentary institutions have a secret function in the Anglosaxon world, like those important glands that seem useless to a superficial anatomy. There is an illusion of self-government, especially for members of the majority; there is a gregarious sense of safety and reassurance in being backed, or led, or even opposed by crowds of your equals under conventional safeguards and guarantees; and there is solace to the vague mind in letting an anonymous and irresponsible majority be responsible for everything. You grumble but you consent to put up with the course that things happen to take.[18]

Moreover, the democratic process itself fits with the mechanical view of the world as a system of blind forces. As Sean Collins writes:

We have now built an entire civilization on the separation of final causes from efficient causes. Many noble souls still hope that the good will still prevail, and they act accordingly. But if one assumes that the good is brought about as an epiphenomenon from agencies which are at bottom blind, tyranny and not freedom will inevitably be the result.[19]

The counting and quantifying of mass opinion on which democracy depends is the fitting political expression of the view of the world as an arena of “force.” Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn points out the contrast between this sort of politics and those of a hereditary monarchy:

Monarchy is not a thought out, artificial, arithmetical form of government, rather it is in the strictest sense of the word “natural,” proportioned to the nature of man. Begetting and birth are contrasted to poster covered walls and nights at the computer after election battles.[20]

III. Consequences

When Boris Bartho and others interviewed me for the youtube trailer of the Bratislavské Hanusove Dni,[21] they were particularly interested in the practical conclusions that might be drawn from my position. And rightly so: political philosophy is a practical science. But modern political ideas are so entrenched that it is hard to see what can be done at the level of practical politics.

At the level of constitutional law there is a limited amount that can be done to encourage the monarchical element within a republican form. One can see the constitution of the French Fifth Republic as an improvement over that of the Fourth in this regard. But such reforms are to my mind largely beside the point. The primary focus of our political action should be to encourage respect for the primacy of the objective good, and the natural law that follows on it, over “consensus values.” I admire people who try to do this in current politics—such as the great Slovak M.E.P. Anna Záborská—but again, the amount of good that can be done in this way is limited by the nature of the system.

Perhaps more important than direct political action is the kind of work that the Ladislav Hanus Fellowship is doing here: education. To educate ourselves in the way of which Plato speaks: to look at the eternal and divine, and to form our souls according to the order there—that is the most practical thing that we can do. And then we can form communities at the local level where that order can find some (imperfect) embodiment, where we can seek authentic common goods together. A classic example of such a local form of community is the monastery, a way of embodying an alternative to the dominant model of authority, of community, and of economic life. Hence Alasdair MacIntyre at the end of After Virtue, his famous polemic against modernity, famously wrote that we are waiting for a new St. Benedict:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different —St. Benedict.[22]

St. Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava (Pressburg) where the Apostolic Kings of Hungary were crowned.

St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava (Pressburg) where the Apostolic Kings of Hungary were crowned.

Conclusion: In Praise of Nostalgia

People like to dismiss my position as nostalgic; as a kind of weak sentimental attachment to an idealized past that enables me to justify my shirking of responsibility in the present. This is the accusation that is invariably brought against critics of modernity, and usually they think it necessary to protest that they are not in fact nostalgic. Thus Alasdair MacIntyre in the Preface to the 3rd edition of After Virtue writes that there is “not a trace” of nostalgia in his book,[23] and another critic of modernity, Brad Gregory, concludes his latest polemic with a section entitled “Against Nostalgia.”[24] But I am not going to let myself be bullied out of my nostalgia; I reject the whole notion that nostalgia is something bad. I have entitled this concluding section of my manuscript not “Against Nostalgia,” but “In Praise of Nostalgia.” Contempt for nostalgia is a sign of the vulgar philistinism of the age of “progress.” Nostalgia is a deeply human sentiment. The greatest and most political works of Western poetry are all nostalgic: Homer is nostalgic, Virgil is nostalgic, Dante is nostalgic.

Pope Francis is hardly a shirker of the burden of the present, but in a reflection (written before he became pope) on the work of Luigi Giussani he offered some reflections on nostalgia that are very relevant here, and with which I conclude:

I am convinced that [Father Giussani’s] thought is profoundly human and reaches man’s innermost longings. I dare say that this is the most profound, and at the same time understandable, phenomenology of nostalgia as a transcendental fact. There is a phenomenology of nostalgia, nóstos algos, feeling called home, the experience of feeling attracted to what is most proper for us, most consonant with our being.[25]


[1] See for example: Thomas Aquinas, De Regno ad Regem Cypri.

[2] Pius VI, Quare Lacrymae, Allocution to the Secret Consistory of the Sacred College of Cardinals of June 17th, 1793, translated by Coëmgenus. Online access, updated 29 January, 2015:

[3] Histories, ed. and trans. A. D. Godley (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920), Bk VII,104,4-5.

[4] St. Thomas, Compendium theologiae , Lib. 1, cap. 102, end.

[5] See my paper “Qui posuit fines tuos pacem: Order as the Final Cause of the Universe,” Noviziatsarbeit, Heiligenkreuz, 2007. Online access:

[6] See: Charles De Koninck, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists (Aquinas Review Vol 4, No 1, 1997).

[7] See: Eva Brann, The Music of the Republic (Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2011), esp. ch. 6.

[8] See my blog-essay “Angelic Governance and Human Dignity,” Online access, 29th April 2014:

[9] See: Romano Guardini, Dantes Göttliche Komödie: Ihre philosophischen und religiösen Grundgedanken, ed. Hans Mercker (Mainz-Paderborn: Grünewald, 1998), pp. 70-75.

[10] See: De Regno ad Regem Cypri, I,2.

[11] See: STh., I-II q.105 a.1.

[12] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “On Royal Government,” translation Andrew Strain, forthcoming, 2014.

[13] Garrigou-Lagrange, “On Royal Government.” Lagrange does not clearly state that he is disagreeing with St. Thomas. See: Alan Fimister, Robert Schuman: Neo Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2008) pp. 111-112.

[14] Alan Fimister, Robert Schuman, p. 145.

[15] Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy the God that Failed (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001).

[16] Cf. the following analysis by Sean Collins: “Where did the Hobbesean – Machiavellian politics come from? No doubt it originated, in significant part, from properly political experience, and interpretations to which that experience gave rise. But that experience could not have been interpreted in the way it was if it were not for a more universal postulate: the postulate that there is such a thing as “force” understood not only as a political reality, but as a principle of politics and ethics. But it became a physical principle (articulated to various degrees at various times) before it became a political or ethical principle. If the former had not happened, the latter very likely would not have happened either.” (Sean Collins, “Imagine a World Without Force,” Blogpost accessed online, 29th April, 2014:

[17] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, United States Supreme Court, 505 U.S. 833; 112 S.Ct. 2791; 120 L.Ed. 2d. 674 (1992).

[18] George Santayana, Persons and Places, Vol. II. The Middle Span (New York: Scribner, 1945), pp. 160-161.

[19] Sean Collins, Op. cit.

[20] Die rechtgestellten Weichen (Wien: Karolinger Verlag, 1989) p.94.

[21] Online access, April 29th 2014:

[22] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2007 [1981]) p. 263.

[23] After Virtue, p. xi.

[24] Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2012).

[25] Quoted in: Silvina Premat, “The Attraction of the Cardinal,” Traces, June 2001, online access, April 29th, 2014:


35 thoughts on “The Politics of Nostalgia

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Nostalgia | Opus Publicum

  2. Pingback: Monarchy and the common good | The Orthosphere

  3. Pingback: Accountability and Paternalism, Imbalance of Power and Civil Friendship | Sancrucensis

  4. Pingback: The Other Illiberal Catholicism | Opus Publicum

  5. Pingback: Nostalgia, Exhaustion, Liberalism | Opus Publicum

  6. Pingback: Looking Back, Looking Ahead | Opus Publicum

  7. Pingback: Note on a Novel Recommended by the Pope | Sancrucensis

  8. Pingback: Strength as Weakness; or the Double Edge of Political Form | Sancrucensis

  9. Pingback: A Dialogue on Star Wars | Sancrucensis

  10. Pingback: Catholic Action and Ralliement | Sancrucensis

  11. Pingback: Catholic Action and Ralliement | The Josias

  12. Pingback: Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy | The Josias

  13. “Modern natural science begins with the decision of thinkers such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, to find a way of looking at nature that will enable man to have power over nature, to dominate it. The older, Aristotelian view had seen the purpose of science as understanding the world as it is.”

    This, it seems to me, is a perspective which is typical of scholars who have a distant view of the history of science, and who have never studied it closely. It is typical of such writers to inflate the role of Bacon out of all proportions.

    Secondly the opposition between an older, Aristotelian view (understanding the material world) and a new “Baconian” view (dominating it rather than endeavouring to understand it) is totally baseless. It would be strange indeed if the use of increasingly sophisticated mathematical modelization had not triggered an enormous progress in the *understanding* of the material world. And that is a result that Aristotelian physics was unable to achieve.

    “Nature came to be seen as a giant machine—moved not by the attraction of the good, but by blind, mathematically defined “forces.”” What does the anthropomorphic metaphor “blind” mean in this context ? In what *specific* ways a view of the universe based on considerations such as “attraction of the good” could lead to a better *understanding* of the material universe than, say, equations of motion or Maxwell’s equations ? Or, to put it more bluntly: what exactly are you talking about?


  14. Pingback: Against Elections | Sancrucensis

  15. Pingback: Waldstein on Freedom « ViQo Circle

  16. Pingback: Contrasting Concepts of Freedom | The Josias

  17. Pingback: The Mirror of the Benedict Option | The Josias

  18. Pingback: The Mirror of the Benedict Option – The Josias

  19. Pingback: The Josias Podcast, Episode VI: Ralliement – The Josias

  20. Pingback: Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy – The Josias

  21. Pingback: Contrasting Concepts of Freedom – The Josias

  22. Pingback: Illiberal Integralist Elites – James Dominic Rooney - AB News Fire

  23. Pingback: Illiberal Integralist Elites – James Dominic Rooney - VBLSA

  24. Pingback: Illiberal Integralist Elites – James Dominic Rooney – World Law Reporter

  25. Pingback: Intolerant Integralist Elites – James Dominic Rooney | Hafiz Law Chamber

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.