An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2013 Ciceronian Society Annual Meeting. Responses to Thomas Storck’s provocative essay are welcome and may be forthcoming.

The tradition of political thought descending ultimately from Plato and Aristotle believed it was obvious that some political authority was necessary in human affairs, some guardian of the common good of a society.  Thus the title of chapter one of St. Thomas’s De Regimine Principumis “That it is necessary for men living together to be diligently ruled by someone.”  And with little argumentation Aquinas reasons: “In all things moreover which are directed to some end, in which it chances to proceed in this way or that, someone directing is necessary, through which immediately the due end may be reached”[1] Of course the ancients were aware that this does not necessarily mean that the direction must be provided by one person only, for they, and St. Thomas as well, were aware of the existence of democracies, aristocracies, and other regimes in which this direction was provided by more than one individual.  But they thought that some directing authority was necessary, some guardian of the common good of the society.

In 2004 William Cavanaugh, at that time professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, published in Modern Theology an article that has had considerable influence, at least in theological circles.  The article was entitled “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good,”[2] and in it Cavanaugh rejected some of the chief claims of the Aristotelian and scholastic tradition of political thought.  The immediate context of his article apparently was the support given to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq by numerous American conservative Catholic publicists and their argument that in questions involving war and peace Catholics were to pay attention not to the pope or the bishops but to those who hold sway over the nation-state.  Although Cavanaugh was certainly correct that the invasion of Iraq did not meet the criteria for a just war, nevertheless I think that his argument goes much too far and puts in jeopardy important truths about human society and government.  Thus I offer this critique of Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh begins his article by noting that those “conservative American Catholics” who rejected Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 appealed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2309) and its statement “that evaluation of just war criteria `belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.'”  But, Cavanaugh asserts, Catholic moral theology too often has assumed “with a minimum of examination, that the responsibility for promoting and protecting the common good falls to the state.  In this essay I want to examine that assumption” (243).  Then on the next page he states the three propositions that he will defend:  “the state is not natural,” secondly, “the state gives rise to society, and not vice-versa,” and lastly, “the state is not one limited part of society, but has in fact expanded and become fused with society” (244).  Or as he sums it up more colorfully at the end of his article, “At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money” (266).

Even before stating his tripartite thesis, Cavanaugh has already attacked what might be called the common sense view of the history of political authority.  Referring to an assertion of Charles Curran’s that the state is “natural and necessary,”[3] Cavanaugh denies this.  Basic to Curran’s notion is the idea (as Cavanaugh puts it) that the state “takes different forms – polis for Aristotle, regimen principum for Aquinas – but these different terms refer to the same essential reality; all historical forms of political community are conflated into the term `state'” (244).  But Cavanaugh does not think this is true.  His primary argument for his view is that on the one hand the term state did not come into use in the modern sense until roughly 1500, and, more importantly, that as a centralizing institution, based on the notion of sovereignty, and claiming “a supreme authority that no lesser authorities within a recognized set of geographical borders may legitimately oppose” (245), the state was in fact a new thing in Western political history, not a modification of earlier institutions.  “The state is qualitatively different; it is precisely that type of government that does not grow out of the self-government of social groups” (256).  “Sovereignty is a departure from earlier forms of governance in which people’s political loyalties were based not necessarily on territoriality, but on feudal ties, kinship, religious or tribal affiliation” (245).

This is really the heart of Cavanaugh’s argument.  But I think one can say more than one thing against it.  In the first place, he is assuming as normative the medieval situation, especially the medieval situation in western Europe.  He hardly refers to the Greek city states or to the Roman Republic or Empire, and although apparently the Latin word status was not used in the modern sense as meaning res publica, nevertheless there was in both Greece and Rome a clear concept of public authority, a distinction between public and private – e.g., in the position of magistrates as compared with men not holding office – as well as boundaries based on geography.

It is certainly true that in medieval Europe and even in antiquity, political authority was often more diffused, and not every inhabitant bore the same relation to the highest political authority—whether that was the consuls and the senate or the princeps/imperator or the medieval king—but that does not seem to me to prove Cavanaugh’s contention.  Aristotle said with regard to the ordering function of political authority that

politics…is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g., strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man.  (Ethics, 1.2)

The point that I think both Aristotle and St. Thomas would make is that someone must exercise the kinds of functions that Aristotle outlines above, and whoever does that, whether one person or a committee or even the entire body of citizens meeting together, or an informal gathering of elders that interprets customary law, whoever does that “legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from…so that this end must be the good for man.”  According to this argument, then, in any society of men, even of nomads, this kind of authority is present, even if widely diffused and shared, even if not exercised on a territorial basis.  An informal group of tribal elders who interpret customary law fulfills this political function as much as a king or other explicitly designated ruler.

The fundamental question is whether there is any institution, formal or informal, that one always finds in human societies, and whether such an institution corresponds to Aristotle’s recognition that some person or group of persons will ultimately decide “as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from,” i.e., will be the final directive force in a society.  Many writers seem surprisingly focused on the different names that over the centuries have been given to that directing power, and on the somewhat different functions that have been ascribed to it by political writers past and present.  Quentin Skinner, commenting on this question of terminology, asserts that the “surest sign that a society has entered into the secure possession of a new concept is that a new vocabulary will be developed, in terms of which the concept can then be publicly articulated and discussed.”[4] But the different functions, and especially the different names, given to this public authority, hardly seem to justify the supposition that we are dealing with a fundamentally different thing, any more than the fact that the family has been constituted in widely different ways in different eras and places prevents us from identifying certain commonalities that apply to all or nearly all human families, both in their functions and in the reasons that incite people to form families.

Cavanaugh also makes much of the fact that the modern state claims authority over everyone within its borders, in contrast to an earlier era when different persons dwelling in the same place might be subject to different laws or even different authorities.  But this fact does not destroy the notion of political authority, either in the Middle Ages or at any other time.  In the Roman Empire citizens and non-citizens were subject to different laws, in Frankish Gaul the old Roman inhabitants and the ruling Franks were judged by different laws, and in the early 19th-century United States whites and blacks were governed by different laws.  But in each case there was a supreme political authority who in fact administered these laws, even if the actual working of the legal system was complex.  And in cases where people might be subject to different authorities—e.g., clerics who might be subject to ecclesiastical rather than royal courts—this does not deny the existence of political authority, but is merely an example of diffused and intermixed authorities, as well as of the unique place of the Church in the medieval social order.

Cavanaugh  traces the historical origins and development of the modern type of state (247).  He notes that it arose in most cases in order to increase the power and revenues of kings.  No doubt this is true.  But can one say that the earlier kingships and other authorities did not frequently arise for the same kinds of reasons? Political authority has always been both necessary for mankind and, in any particular case, often of dubious origins.  But despite that fact, political writers have insisted again and again that the ruler ruled for the sake of his subjects.  The innovation in modern times, with Machiavelli, was that writers began to say that rulers ruled for their own power and glory.  There is no doubt that the modern state is an innovation in many ways, a new type of political authority.  But nevertheless it is a type, even if a degenerate or bloated type, of an institution as old as the human community.

Cavanaugh’s second point, which he addresses beginning on page 250, is that “the state gives rise to society, and not vice-versa.”  Here, it seems to me, we have an important equivocation that we need to note. What Cavanaugh means here is that until states arose, controlling directly a certain territory, there was no national society.

To say that the state “creates” society is not to deny that families, guilds, clans and other social groups existed before the state.  Rather, the state “creates” society by replacing the complex overlapping loyalties of medieval societates with one society, bounded by borders and ruled by one sovereign to whom allegiance is owed in a way that trumps all other allegiances. (251)

What Cavanaugh claims here is correct, of course.  Until states that treated (more or less) all citizens or subjects the same way and dealt with them immediately and directly, came into existence, there was not one more or less uniform society for the whole territory.  So why do I say there is an equivocation here?  Because I do not think that when people claim that `society gives rise to the state’ they mean society in the sense that Cavanaugh means it.  Rather they mean simply that the “families, guilds, clans and other social groups” that always exist in some territory, even if their relationships one to another are complex, require and therefore, in some manner give rise to, political authority.  So that, as in Aristotle’s account, “when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village [and when] several villages are united in a single complete community…the state comes into existence” (Politics 1.2).  Society here creates the state.  If Cavanaugh were to restate his thesis to say something like:  `Large-scale and uniform societies do not create the state, rather the state creates such large-scale societies,’ then I would not disagree, for this is certainly true, but is a much less radical claim than his original one.  I can also agree with Cavanaugh’s account of the nation-state as an entity that created an idea of the nation by attempting to impose linguistic and cultural uniformity and legal authority on a previously only loosely-united geographical area.  This has been an historical development both striking and unfortunate.  But I do not see how this fact aids his thesis that the nation-state is not the guardian and promoter of the common good.

Finally, beginning on page 255, Cavanaugh addresses his last thesis, that “the state is not one limited part of society, but has in fact expanded and become fused with society.”  Here I think we encounter another equivocation, for it seems to me that Cavanaugh’s point depends on two different meanings of the word state: the government itself or the political community.  This, I think, is a common confusion or mistake, in that many authors do not distinguish between these two meanings nor are they clear as to which one they mean.  For state can mean, on the one hand, simply the government, the rulers of a particular community and those whom they employ.  But to use state in this narrow sense can be misleading, I think, for it almost always carries overtones of the second meaning, and it is better and clearer to speak of the government when we mean simply those individuals who exercise political authority together with their ministers.  But polis or state can also mean a particular human community as politically constituted, and which, according to Aristotle, is the natural way that human communities are constituted.[5] We can think of the actual human beings as the matter and the regime, in the broadest sense of that term, as the form of this community.  That is to say, the political defines and constitutes the community as such, not only giving it some system of government, but, as Aristotle said, ordaining “which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them….”  Similarly Cicero says that a res publica is the thing or affair of a people (res populi), but that “a people is not every grouping of men united in any sort of way, but a grouping of a multitude associated by consent of law (juris) and common utility.”[6] The political function or legal bond referred to by Aristotle and Cicero need not be limited to the strictly governmental, but often other institutions besides the government, stricto sensu, can broadly share in the kinds of determinations of which Aristotle speaks or in the juridical bond that Cicero notes.  The often-used term civil society, however, seems to me unclear and not especially helpful, as perhaps suggesting that the political aspect of society is not intrinsic to it or that human social life can exist that is not essentially political or ordered to the political as to the whole.  But in fact human society is naturally political, and there is no other kind of natural human society.  For, to quote Aristotle again, the state “is the end of [the earlier forms of human association], and [since] the nature of a thing is its end…the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part” (Politics 1.2).

Curiously, one argument that Cavanaugh makes on behalf of his last thesis is “the symbiosis of the state and the corporation that signals the collapse of separation between politics and economics” (258).  I pretty much agree with everything Cavanaugh says about the way corporations and other economic interests have taken control over the state—that is, over the governmental authorities.  But I do not understand why this is an argument for the increased scope or power of the government, rather the opposite, it would seem.  For now private economic interests are in many cases stronger than the government, and make use of governmental authority to further their own interests.  Pope Pius XI had spoken of this long ago.  In Quadragesimo Anno (1931) he wrote that the “concentration of [economic] power has led to a threefold struggle for domination [including] the fierce battle to acquire control of the State, so that its resources and authority may be abused in the economic struggles” (no. 108)[7].  And in fact, when Cavanaugh ponders the question why the state is promoting globalization when globalization would seem to diminish the state’s own power (265), the answer is easy.  Capital has taken control of the state and is using the state for its own purposes.  Whatever purposes the state might be expected to have for its own sake are of little or no importance anymore unless they will benefit capital and its owners or controllers.

Cavanaugh instances the teaching of both Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI on, as he puts it, “the need for complex space” and the fact that the “principle of subsidiarity was meant…to keep the state from distorting from above the organic life of community from below” (267).  This is certainly the case, but neither of these pontiffs questioned the essential continuity of the modern state with earlier types of regimes, even if they were severely critical of many of the practices of the states of their time.  In fact, their repeated appeals to reform the state, Leo’s appeals to contemporary rulers to remember the divine origin and duties of political authority, Pius’ explicit teaching in Quas primas and elsewhere on the state’s subjection to Jesus Christ, make no sense if they saw the modern state as something essentially different from earlier versions of a political community.

Cavanaugh’s article provides a good dialectical starting point for discussions about the state, its purposes, and its aberrations in our day.  However, as I see it, his argument fails.  Of course this is not to say that the modern nation-state is any kind of ideal; simply that it meets the minimum requirements to be a polis, the natural social home of the human species.  If we have any hope of reforming the nation-state we must understand what it is before we can hope to replace it with something else.  To mistake its character by labeling it as something essentially different from earlier forms of political association will not contribute to the clear thinking that is needed before we can hope to reform the nation-state or replace it with a better and more natural form of the polis.


Thomas Storck is an independent scholar in Ohio.


[1] Aquinas, Selected Political Writings, ed. A. P. D’Entrèves (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978), 2.

[2]. William Cavanaugh, Modern Theology, 20, no. 2 (April 2004): 243-274. Also reprinted in his book, Migrations of the Holy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).  All page references are to the article as it appeared in Modern Theology.

[3]. Charles Curran,Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present: a Historical, Theological and Ethical Analysis (Washington: Georgetown University, 2002), 138-39.

[4]. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1978), 2: 352.

[5]. We could, then, define the polis or state or commonwealth as that kind of human community constituted by some kind of authority or institution which makes the ultimate determinations of human conduct for that community.  Of course this does not mean that such ultimate determinations need be made without reference to other types of authority, e.g., religious.

[6]. “Est igitur…res publica res populi, populus autem non omnis hominum coetus quoquo modo congregatus, sed coetus multitudinis juris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus.” Cicero De Re Publica 1.35.

[7] William J. Gibbons, ed., Seven Great Encyclicals: The Condition of Labor, Christian Education, Christian Marriage, Reconstructing the Social Order, Atheistic Communism, Christianity and Social Progress, Peace on Earth (Glen Rock, N.J.: Paulist, 1963), 153