A review of Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory, by John P. Hittinger

John Hittinger is a Catholic scholar of political philosophy and, most recently, an academic dean at Ave Maria University in Michigan. This volume is a collection of 16 of his scholarly articles that have been published over the last 20 years. The articles display a deep immersion in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and the development of Thomism, as well as careful study of modern liberalism and familiarity with the works of Leo Strauss. Hittinger writes with insight and style about all of these subjects, and his volume will therefore be of interest to three sets of readers. 

One is a Catholic audience that might wish to learn more about the current state of Thomism, the perennial philosophy of the Catholic Church. Writing as "a member of a tradition shaped by Thomas Aquinas," Hittinger gives us sympathetic but critical assessments of some of the leading Thomists of our age, such as Jacques Maritain, Yves R. Simon, Cardinal Newman, Joseph Pieper, James V. Schall, Marion Montgomery, and Pope John Paul II. He explains how they have incorporated and developed the thought of Thomas Aquinas, and in what respects they have departed from original Thomism, either for good or for ill. A second set of readers who will find this book interesting are non-Catholics who are puzzled about the best way to understand and to defend modern liberal democracy. Hittinger offers interesting interpretations of liberal philosophers and their critics, such as John Locke, David Richards, and the conservative critic of liberalism, Aurel Kolnai. He makes it pretty clear that, although he is a deeply patriotic American citizen, he finds the conservative critique of liberalism by Kolnai to be more persuasive than Locke's classical liberalism or the neo-Kantian liberalism of Richards and John Rawls. The third set of readers who will be interested in this book are Straussians, for Hittinger reveals that he has been influenced by Strauss's view of Locke as a thinly disguised "philosophical descendent of Thomas Hobbes" and by Strauss's distinction between the ancients and moderns on the ultimate purposes of political life. 

One may surmise, therefore, that John Hittinger is an unusual kind of scholar who blends together Catholic, Straussian, and American concerns and who is driven by the intellectual challenge of finding a Thomistic justification for modern liberal democracy while possessing a keen awareness of the difficulties he faces. 

The difficulties are evident in part one of his volume which begins with several chapters on the achievements of Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon. Hittinger clearly reveres these 20th-century Thomists, as well as the college professors from Notre Dame who introduced them to him as a young student. But Hittinger's reverence does not blind him to their shortcomings, as can be seen especially in chapter three, "Jacques Maritain's and Yves R. Simon's Use of Thomas Aquinas in Their Defense of Liberal Democracy." Hittinger correctly describes their historic importance as helping "to shift the axis of Catholic social and political thought away from tradition and monarchy to support for liberal democratic regimes" and as overcoming "the mutual antagonism of the Catholic Church and western liberal democracy dating back to the French Revolution and conditioned by the dramatic rise of totalitarianism." Hittinger also correctly describes the innovative strategies devised by Maritain and Simon to bring about this historic shift in perspective. 

Hittinger describes Maritain's strategy as a metaphysical and spiritual approach to democracy. It takes from Thomas Aquinas the concept of the "human person" as a rational substance endowed with free will and inherent dignity and adds the notion that a person is a possessor of inalienable natural rights. Maritain also takes from Henri Bergson the idea that democracy is "evangelical" or inspired by the Gospel's message of universal love. By developing the Thomistic concept of the human person and the Gospel message in this fashion, Maritain articulated the theory of Catholic "personalism" and "personalist democracy" as an alternative to totalitarianism and to debased individualism. 

By contrast, Hittinger shows that Yves Simon takes a political approach in his defense of democracy. Simon develops Aristotle's distinction between despotic and political rule into an Aristotelian argument for democracy based on universal suffrage and popular participation. Simon also draws upon a passage in Thomas Aquinas that says law-making for the common good belongs "either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care for the whole people" to make the case that legitimate government arises by a transfer of power from the people to the rulers of the regime. Simon endorses this "transfer" or "transmission" theory of power (originally stated by Neoscholastics such as Suarez and Bellarmine) as the basis of democratic authority. 

In evaluating these strategies for deriving democracy from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Hittinger displays admirable intellectual honesty. He frankly states that Maritain and Simon are stretching the ancient and medieval sources to defend democracy as the best regime or the sole legitimate regime, because the sources indicate that democracy (or polity, properly speaking) is no more than one of several legitimate regimes—and by no means the best. In point of fact, Hittinger says, Thomas argued that the best regime is not a democracy but a mixed constitution which looks "something like constitutional monarchy." Hittinger concludes therefore that Simon's and Maritain's justification for liberal democracy is "not fully warranted by the texts of St. Thomas" and that their "advocacy of the democratic spirit and the sense of historical progress take Simon and Maritain well beyond the political philosophy of St. Thomas." 

As a response to his own criticisms, however, and in the spirit of dialectical give-and-take, Hittinger then finds in these neo-Thomists a correction to their "surplus of democratic convinction." In part two, chapter nine, entitled "Approaches to Democratic Equality," Hittinger points out that both Simon and Maritain qualified their support for democracy by expressing concerns about promoting virtue and higher goods than equality and freedom and that Simon, in particular, was a more sober Aristotelian than the idealistic Maritain. Indeed, Hittinger says, Simon's arguments were largely prudential and actually move beyond democracy to "an idea of the mixed regime as the best." Following this line of reasoning, Hittinger turns to the views of the Hungarian Catholic conservative, Aurel Kolnai, who was critical of Maritain's and Simon's approach to democracy. Kolnai made the incisive observation that Maritain was forever fighting against himself by encouraging the progressive spirit of democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and then arguing like a conservative with appeals to virtue, hierarchy, tradition, and otherwordliness to correct for the possible misuses of freedom. Hittinger regards this criticism of Maritain as indicative of a kind of fatal flaw because it means that personalist democracy is forever on the defensive, like a team playing catch-up to Progressivism's ever increasing lead in modern history. 

In chapter ten, Hittinger gives further consideration to Kolnai's "metaphysics of political conservatism" and tilts in favor of this approach over Maritain's and Simon's democratic progressivism and defensive neo-Thomism. Kolnai contrasts conservative metaphysics, which views life in terms of "hierarchy, privilege, and liberty," to democratic metaphysics, which views life in terms of "identity, sameness, and rebellion." Kolnai defends conservative metaphysics against democratic metaphysics because the former is more noble than the latter and accords with the natural order of things. The problem with this judgment, of course, is that conservative metaphysics point toward an aristocratic order of politics while democratic metaphysics point to the mass culture of the common man, neither of which is entirely acceptable. Kolnai tries to solve the problem by combining the two orders in a view of "constitutionalism" that separates limitations on power from individual rights and connects "liberty under God" with dispersed centers of power based on privilege and corporate hierarchy. It is unclear, however, if Hittinger completely accepts this political solution because he senses that Kolnai's spirit is at odds with the Second Vatican Council and with the views of Pope John Paul II, a champion of the rights and dignity of the human person. 

This observation points to the dilemma that lies at the heart of Hittinger's book, which is that Hittinger seems to regard the "conservative metaphysics" of Kolnai (which is also the metaphysics of original Thomism) as the truth about reality, but it is hierarchical, corporate, and perfectionist in its implications for politics rather than democratic or liberal. By contrast, the various developments of neo-Thomism in the democratic age have moved toward a metaphysics and politics that are egalitarian, personalist, and open-ended, but this has left neo-Thomists forever fighting to distinguish their teachings from secular democracy and from the potential misuses of rights by pointing to the true hierarchy of ends which freedom must serve in order to be legitimate. Hittinger does not say in so many words that this is the dilemma he is addressing, but one senses that it drives his thinking because he is never quite able to decide if he supports or opposes the neo-Thomism of Jacques Maritain. 

Thus, after going beyond Maritain in parts one and two of the volume, the third part includes six chapters that are inspired by Maritain's metaphysical realism and the recovery of the sense of being in modern Thomistic thinkers. In this section, Hittinger includes chapters on the metaphysics of "being" in John Paul II, Maritain, and Marion Montgomery as well as chapters on the realms above politics in Cardinal Newman, James Schall, and Maritain (once again). In rising to these heights, Hittinger allows us to see that the special strength of the Thomistic and Catholic approach to politics is that it is based on a conception of the hierarchy of being that points to activities above and beyond the political realm-activities such as philosophy, art, and spirituality—that remind one of the inherent limitations of political life and that resist the ideological utopianism of much of modern political thought. 

Hittinger tries to rekindle awareness of the higher realms by writing about the "intuition of being" in the poetic and contemplative life of modern thinkers who see in the created order "the graciousness of being" that God intends us to feel about the divinely created natural order. We learn that Pope John Paul II and Maritain are critics of Descartes' philosophy because Cartesianism turns modern man away from "being" and focuses instead on "knowledge" or ideas in the mind and looks upon nature as an object for mastery and exploitation. Likewise, certain artists and novelists, such as Marion Montgomery and Nathaniel Hawthorne, seek to recover the mystery of being in the tangible existence of plants, animals, and other living things that abound in agrarian societies. In these musings, Hittinger is influenced by the reading of Thomas Aquinas developed by Etienne Gilson and Maritain, often called "existential Thomism." Hittinger says that "existential judgment is a kind of natural piety": it fills us with awe at the sheer "givenness of things" as a triumph over not-being and gives us a sense of the "graciousness of being" since we are assured by faith of the goodness of creation. Hittinger also praises the work of Cardinal Newman for reminding scholars that the university is not complete without the study of theology and metaphysics—the only disciplines that explore the whole of reality. Hittinger also shows appreciation for the work of the contemporary Thomist, James Schall, for reminding us that classical philosophy and medieval theology provide an antidote to modern philosophy's ideological approach to politics. 

In reflecting on these 16 essays by Hittinger, one can see the outlines of a Thomism for the democratic age that combines the metaphysics of original Thomism in its articulation of the hierarchy of being with the politics of neo-Thomism in its respect for democratic freedom. As Hittinger himself suggests at one point, the key is for "Thomistic political philosophy [to] reverse the rhetorical emphasis": instead of defending liberal democracy as the sole legitimate regime consistent with human dignity or with the Christian view of the human person, it should defend liberal democracy prudentially as one of several just regimes that, all things considered, provides the best approximation to virtue and the good life that is possible in the present age, even if it is by no means the best regime simply. Such an approach would highlight the virtue of prudence, which St. Thomas Aquinas would certainly endorse if he were alive today; and it would provide a useful corrective to Maritain's laudable but overstated case for Catholic personalism and personalist democracy.