A review of Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, by James V. Schall

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., has written a book in a lapidary style that recalls the distinction Max Picard made in Man and Language between vertical and horizontal ways of writing. The horizontal is the modern mode: empty words tumble into each other like a collapsing set of dominoes, hurrying toward an unknown destination; all they produce is movement. In the vertical mode, which Picard associates with classical Latin, the words stand upright like sentries, arresting the reader, each demanding the countersign of comprehension before allowing passage to the next. Every word is, in a way, complete. It stands for something; it defends what it represents, "what is," as Schall would say. This is a book of such words, as close to Latin as English can come, so tightly and leanly written that it could almost be read as a book of epigrams. In fact, in an act of further refinement, the book ends with 33 aphorisms. Roman Catholic Political Philosophy is thus both simple and dense—simple in its startling clarity, dense in its richness of meaning, a work of great metaphysical integrity.

The title is meant to provoke those permanently caught—like modern-day Tertullians— in the grip of tension between Athens and Jerusalem who, never having considered Rome, believe reason and revelation are incompatible. The late Frederick Wilhelmsen used to say that Catholic political philosophy is political philosophy done by Catholics. In other words, if you accept Christian revelation, you simply go about philosophizing in light of its truths. You reason about revelation. But is that still philosophy, or has it been fatally polluted by an irrational faith that is blindly accepted? Many conclude the latter. Or on the other hand, as Eric Voegelin suggested, are philosophy and revelation really the same, albeit differentiated things, leaps in being from the same source, both kept in irresolvable tension toward a common transcendent ground that they can only symbolize but never fully reach? And what is at stake here for political life and how we think about it?

Schall is a Catholic priest, a long-time professor of politics at Georgetown, who philosophizes. He embodies the paradox he seeks to explain, a man of reason and revelation in one. This book is not so much his answer to these questions, which he has offered in other books, as it is the question itself, properly posed. As he says, you will never understand the answer if you have not asked the right question. In this book, Schall lays out the metaphysical groundwork for that question so that it is, first of all, open to an answer. This is no mean feat of recovery in a world of ideologies that are answers without questions or, perhaps more accurately, answers that foreclose questions. As a Hungarian student in the Communist era once told Schall, "You cannot ask about the best regime in an already perfect state." And then there is the problem of modern philosophies based on epistemologies that preclude answers because they divorce the mind from reality.

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Of course, some claim that revelation forecloses questions as well—in a way that does not satisfy reason. But that depends on the nature of the revelation. As Schall has pointed out elsewhere, this is the problem with Islam insofar as it reduces God to his omnipotence, as over against his reason. Where unlimited will is the exclusive constituent of reality, there is really nothing left to reason about. As he said in an interview with the Claremont Institute's Ken Masugi, "this understanding of the Godhead as pure will has something wrong with it in principle." And "[i]t is by no means a neutral principle." Whether the notion of pure will as the basis of reality originates in a deformed theology or in Hegel or Hobbes, the political results will be pretty much the same tyrannical rule. Disordered will, unfettered by right reason, is the political problem. In this volume, Schall uses the term revelation to refer exclusively to Christian revelation as it is understood in Catholicism. According to him, there is no derogation of reason in Christian revelation. Rather, Christianity contains an invitation to reason because God is revealed as logos. He claims that "what is revealed does not demand the denial of intellect, but fosters it." If God is logos, reason and revelation are not at an impasse. A division of labor defines them. The common objective is the search for the highest things, and reason is given primacy in this search, including in its examination of the truths claimed by revelation. As Schall says, in Christianity, "revelation itself has turned to philosophy precisely to explain more fully what is revealed." Christian revelation confirms reason in its authority. At the same time, revelation has a claim on reason. A philosophy that a priori excludes the possibility of revelation is a philosophy that is not true to itself. This book is about "how the highest things of philosophy, politics, and revelation relate to each other."

In his interview with Masugi, Schall said:

we will not know, intellectually, if revelation has happened, unless we have first taken the trouble to examine the questions that arise in the experience of political and human things together with the varieties of answers that have been given to these questions by the philosophers…. I like to say that the study of political philosophy ought to bring such questions forward in our souls so that there is a kind of longing or searching that arises from the suspicion that none of the answers so given have been complete or adequate.

Ultimately, philosophy cannot fully answer its own questions because of the limits of reason. Nevertheless, it has the duty to examine even the answers it could not itself arrive at to see if they are possible, so long as revelation is itself notagainst reason.

In the complementarity of reason and revelation, he claims that revelation saves politics from arrogating to itself powers it does not have—which are themselves ruinous to politics, as demonstrated by the 20th century's ideological bloodbaths. At the same time, politics points beyond itself because questions necessarily arise from its practice that politics cannot answer. As the introduction states, "Revelation articulates a more clear and defined end than even the philosopher could envision by his own powers. Yet, the efforts of the philosopher to envision this end were themselves needed to understand why revelational answers were answers to real questions that did not arise only from revelation."

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The questions asked here are often those of Socrates; in fact, Schall describes his book as Socratic. Socrates showed us how concern for higher things naturally develops in the life of the city through the questions it raises. He found that men's souls are everywhere ordered to the good and that there has to be a single standard of justice that transcends the standards of the city. In The Republic, Socrates powerfully dramatized the fact that man's soul cannot be satisfied through political means. He transposed the order of the soul into the political order to see what the attempt to meet the demands of the soul through political means would look like. Such a state would destroy the family, engage in eugenics, militarize its citizens, and eliminate privacy. Socrates showed that any attempt to fulfill the soul's ultimate desires through politics would transform the state into a totalitarian enterprise. Politics cannot meet the needs of the human soul, for it cannot achieve perfect justice. Therefore, he argued for the immortality of the soul. Justice requires the immortality of the soul because the demands of justice cannot be met in this life. According to Schall, Socrates hints at even more: that "the lover and the beloved should be together in eternity." There seems something profoundly right about this intimation because, as Aquinas said, the world was created not out of justice but out of charity. Whether from justice or love, there is something essential in man's makeup that finds its end outside of politics— that can only be reached by the divine or the transcendent. This end is the heavenly city, of which Socrates had a startling premonition.

In one of the most moving passages of political philosophy, Socrates says: "In heaven there is laid up a pattern of it [the ideal city] methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding may set his own house in order. But whether such a one exists, or ever will exist in fact, does not matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other." As Schall has said elsewhere, in a world in which so much goes wrong, "[Socrates'] whole life is devoted to founding a republic in speech in which things go right. To put this city in speech in our souls is the essence of what it is to know." In other words, the good and the wise will live according to a spiritual order that transcends the actual and particular order in which the individual lives. Socrates' transcendent view beautifully adumbrates St. Paul's description of Abraham in the Letter to the Hebrews (chapter 11) as "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God" and his declaration that, "As you well know, we have our true citizenship in heaven." In the Masugi interview, Schall says, "it is revelation that generally makes us see how very close to the truth that Plato actually was."

The great Christian contribution to the question of man's nature and his ultimate end is the revelation that man's soul is not only, as Socrates said, drawn to the good; it is drawn to goodness itself, which is God. Ironically, by offering a vision that transcends politics, Christianity enables politics to focus on its proper study—how best to govern man in this world. In an earlier work, The Politics of Heaven and Hell (1984), Schall wrote, "Christianity was vital to the very structure of classical political thought because it was able to give a reason why politics did not have to be concerned with man's highest destiny or virtue. Resurrection and the Kingdom of God suggested both that man's deepest desires would be fulfilled and that politics could, consequently, pursue a temporal good in a human, finite fashion." Since man's ultimate human happiness lies in God, and a transcendent God is, by definition, outside of history, man cannot make his home in this world. Thus, the salvific engine for the transformation of mankind and the elimination of evil is not politics. It is Christ. This is what ultimately limits, and therefore makes possible, politics.

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Politics cannot, and should not attempt to, transform man spiritually or turn the world into a paradise. Instead, politics ought to arrange the material circumstances of man's life to mitigate the effects of evil, so that he can pursue virtue and, in so doing, achieve the ultimate happiness that lies beyond politics. Political philosophy has to defend these limits so the city does not succumb to the temptation of transforming itself into the engine of man's salvation. Otherwise, the city will approximate some version of the proto-totalitarian state that Plato predicted in The Republic. Schall says that the best defense of politics as politics "is, ultimately, the adequate description of the highest things, of what is beyond politics." Both reason and revelation are needed for this defense.

The things that point us beyond ourselves come from our consideration of "what is," the two words that appear over and over in this book, both in the form of a question and as an answer. "What is" is the given, antecedent to our thinking; it is reality. Our experience of "what is" is what we reflect upon to gain knowledge of who we are and how we ought to live. These are givens; we do not get to make them up. If we wish to make them up for ourselves, we must break the relationship between our minds and "what is" so that we are no longer constrained by reality. This requires an act of willful ignorance. "This unknowing," says Fr. Schall, "is taken to be a guarantee of freedom, almost the opposite of the classic meaning of freedom as the capacity to learn from and know what is not oneself."

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A nihilist professor of mine defined modernity as the acceptance as real of only those things that we could change. By simply denying the existence of those things over which we have no power, we can be as gods, so to speak. Man can become his own cause. This is the modern project. The things "beyond us" become the here and now, pliable and ripe for our desired transformation of them. Toward the end of his book, Schall avers, "A politics that conceives itself to have no limits is the main rival to revelation in any age, including our own…; it strives in effect to take the place of both reason and revelation, to become itself a metaphysics defining by itself a will-based 'what-is.'" It is, in other words, a substitute faith, ironically one often accepted by the very people who denounce revelation as irrational.

Political philosophy has the obligation to look at all cities—Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome. Today, Rome seems the least familiar of these three, and there is no better guide to it than Fr. Schall. For those confronting modernity, it is an essential visit because, as he has pointed out in Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy (1987), modernity is not a distortion of classical political thought, but of Christianity. Millenarian ideology attempts, in its clumsy and destructive way, to ape the redemptive action of Christianity—of "God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself." Therefore, the recovery from modern ideology requires far more than the resuscitation of classical political philosophy, though that in itself is a good thing.

One need not be a Catholic, much less a Christian, to grasp the importance of Roman Catholic Political Philosophy.