In describing the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the earthly city, the noted German theologian Karl Barth stressed the fact that, from a Protestant conception, the world, all of its structures and institutions, had been given over to the reign of the devil. Human nature, political society, and all things human were not only damaged as a result of the Fall but had become ontologically corrupt as well. Viewed from this perspective, even the Incarnation, wherein all that is human is elevated by the supernatural light of grace, seems to have done little more than demonstrate that God will simply save us by overtaking us. Grace does not build upon nature, since nature is simply a nominalist description of a reality that does not actually exist or refers to something so destroyed that no transformation can take place, only a “covering over.” Barth’s theology of pure pessimism was at the heart of his overarching critique of Catholicism, namely, that it gave too much to the human.[i]
This is a fascinating phrase, “giving too much to the human,” for encapsulated within it is the very distinction and unity of both reason and revelation, of the interconnectedness of things human and divine, of contemplative and political happiness. Aristotle reminds us that man is not the highest being, for if that were so, then politics would be the highest science.[ii] However, politics is the highest of the practical sciences, a necessary and good human endeavor that has an intimate connection with man’s happiness, as both Aristotle and Aquinas affirm. Barth was sure, and correct, to point out that man has a supernatural destiny that can never come to be in this life, something to which man was made that will be ushered in at the end of history. And yet Barth’s Protestantism seemed to deny the ever-important intellectual foundation that is the bedrock of Catholicism, namely, the relationship between reason and revelation. While affirming man’s supernatural destiny is key for Barth, and all forms of Protestantism, there is, nonetheless, a serious void in the treatment of man’s life in society, of what it means to live a fully human life as man in political society. When the reality of this essential aspect of the human person’s life is neglected, even in the name of religion,[iii] the human is not given too much, but too little.
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI made it one of the hallmarks of their pontificates to show not only the interconnection of reason and revelation but also to show that the fundamental problem within the post-conciliar church was philosophical.[iv] The Barthian pure pessimism often affirms revelation at the expense of reason and all that is natural, whereas philosophic modernity sides with reason at the exclusion of revelation. Following the tradition established by Rousseau, modern man has absorbed grace into his very nature, thereby becoming good to such an extent that he is no longer in need of salvation from without, a clear reminder of the Pelagianism and “democratic faith”[v] that we are still living through today. Here, with the exclusion of revelation, society becomes reduced to what Jacques Maritain called the “cult of sheer-man,” where the ultimate arbiter of all truth, even any kind of revelation, is man’s will alone. Socioeconomic and political adversities can simply be solved by man in whatever way he chooses, with no standard other than these choices.
In light of these initial remarks, I want to call to mind two brief insights from Aquinas, whose clear and intelligent grasp of these issues in their totality is desperately needed in order to counter the all-too-common rejection of the necessary synthesis between reason and revelation, things human and things divine. In question 96, article 4 of the Prima Pars, Aquinas inquires whether or not man would have ruled others in the preternatural state, a condition prior to original sin. In order to ground the discussion, St. Thomas first makes a necessary distinction between despotic and political rule. Despotic rule is paradigmatic of the master-slave relationship, whereby the former rules simply for his own good and selfish desires. Political rule, however, is the rule of free men over one another, wherein the ruler orders society for the good of the individuals and the common good, the kind of rule that Aristotle already pointed to as being worthy of men in political society.
The latter kind of rule, which is properly political, would have existed even before the Fall, and for two reasons. Man is, recalling the opening of Aristotle’s Politics, a social and political being by nature, and is thus inclined to organize himself into society. Not only does he seek the basic goods and necessities worthy of human dignity, but, more importantly, he recognizes that he cannot become fully himself without the assistance and guidance of others. The proper life of man, and his good as man, can only come to exist through his living in community with others.[vi] Moreover, the common good is not simply a conglomeration of individual goods but a unity of life and will among the community that manifests a fully, and morally good, human life. Also, since there are various authentic particular goods worthy of pursuit and various good means to achieving the common good, men would need to be ordered and ruled in society by others. Yet, this is the result of human freedom and excellence, not because of human wickedness, although this last point must never be forgotten when dealing with human communities.
Yves Simon, in his classic work Philosophy of Democratic Government, tells us that, following Aquinas, political society is natural to man as a result of the “perfective function” of authority, wherein those who naturally excel in the gifts of virtue and knowledge would be in positions of leading others to their own good, as well as to the common good. Not only are citizens led by the prudence of their leaders but also, and perhaps more importantly, they are led by their good example of virtuous living. Both Aquinas and Simon acknowledge the equal dignity of all human beings but affirm that these gifts of virtue, talent, and knowledge, which are not shared by all to the same degree, are for the good of all, rulers and ruled alike. This point is surely to be found repulsive in our contemporary liberal democratic ethos, which views all signs and manifestations of distinction and inequality as injustices in need of correction.
And yet, at the heart of Catholic thought is the fact of its transpolitical character. Aquinas’s insight is worth citing in this regard:
And indeed if man were ordained to no other end than that which is proportionate to his natural faculty, there would be no need for man to have any further direction of the part of his reason, besides the natural law and human law which is derived from it. But since man is ordained to an end of eternal happiness which is disproportionate to man’s natural faculty, as stated above (Question 5, Article 5), therefore it was necessary that, besides the natural and the human law, man should be directed to his end by a law given by God.[vii]
Due to the fact that man is political and social by nature, his moral and human flourishing can only come to exist in and through political society, which, like the family, is an association that is “by nature.” We are in need of human laws that are made known through a written constitution, for the purpose, at the very least, of preventing us from doing evil that will permeate society. Laws do have the effect of cultivating certain exterior habits, either good or evil, in accordance with virtuous human living or contrary to it. However, while laws to a real degree can affect us interiorly, it ultimately belongs to some transpolitical reality to do so. And this, we call grace. In the passage cited above from Aquinas, we see the very heart of our own cultural and societal disorders, particularly regarding man, as he is paradoxically both temporal and supratemporal. We are meant to dwell in the city that is in accord with our nature and virtue, while simultaneously recognizing that our natural life is not the whole story regarding the inclinations of human nature.
Aquinas tells us that, “Man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all that he is and has . . . but all that man is, and can, and has, must be referred to God” (I-II, 21.4, ad. 3). Our modern ideologies, to recall the constant teaching of Fr. James Schall, seek to remake man, not in the imago dei but in something far less, some alternative that is capable of destroying what is human in the name of “compassion,” “rights,” or some form of humanitarianism. Maritain, in referring to the Aquinas passage just cited, calls this aspect of society its “peregrinal” component, whereby what man is in the totality of his being, what constitutes his happiness and his destiny, does not fall entirely to politics to determine or recreate, even though he is in need of political society for the happiness that is proper to him as man.
Perhaps the greatest threat in our contemporary age is to believe that thought and action have little to no relation to one another. In other words, what is most important is that we seek to change the world through action. We need not concern ourselves with what we think about the world. However, practical action is not merely, or only, practical. As Fr. Schall has argued
Practice does not really replace thought. It merely produces another kind of practice that seeks justification in a different line of thought. Practice, overtly or covertly, depends on thought. The origin of all deviant practice is deviant thought. The knowing why it is deviant is a function of mind based on a standard of reason. It is the steady “knowing why” that, before anything else, we are missing.[viii]
Through the loss of philosophy, metaphysics, and a reason (logos) rooted in what is, contemporary society has become radically disintegrated. Seeking to remake and refashion the world in opposition to the natural and divine order, the truths discovered in reason and revelation, has been the goal of the modern project. The ultimate end of human existence does not reside in this mortal life. Yet, the paradox of Catholicism is that this truth, perhaps more than any other, aids in us practicing what Wendell Berry calls “responsible membership” in this world.[ix] This is not to give “too much to the human,” but to call to mind the joy of his glory as the kind of being he is.
Brian Jones is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is currently writing his dissertation on the political philosophy of James V. Schall. He is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and currently lives outside Houston with his wife and three girls.
[i] My arguments here regarding Barth’s pure pessimism are based in Jacques Maritain’s Integral Humanism: Temporal and Spiritual Problems of a New Christendom, trans. Joseph Evans (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 69–71. It is important to note that later in life, Barth seemed to see the difficulties of holding to a conception of God that separated him from man, history, and the cosmos. Barth’s later position certainly appears to modify, in some respects, his earlier form of pure pessimism. For more on this, see Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960).
[ii] Nicomachean Ethics 1141a20–21.
[iii] See James V. Schall, “Protestantism and Atheism,” Thought 39 (December 1964): 531–58.
[iv] See Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio, and Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 “Regensburg Address.”
[v] See Patrick Deneen, Democratic Faith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 140–65.
[vi] For an excellent explication of this Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine, see James V. Schall, Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 96–120.
[vii] Summa Theologiae I-II, 91.4, trans. Alfred Freddoso (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2009).
[viii] “Catholics and the Present Confusion,” Catholic World Report, January 9, 2017.
[ix] Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels,” in The Way of Ignorance (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005), 136.