Protection for human reason

ROMAN CATHOLIC POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. By James V. Schall (Lexington Books, 4501 Forbes Blvd., Suite 200, Lanham, Md. 20706, 2004), 209 pp. HB $65.00.

There is no official Church-sanctioned “Roman Catholic” political philosophy. But, precisely because of this, Roman Catholicism offers a unique protection for the place of human reason in political philosophy’s contemplation of human affairs. Father James V. Schall’s new book, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington Books, 2004), explores this distinctive response of the Roman Catholic tradition of metaphysics and revelation to the questions of political philosophy.

In Church tradition, faith and reason mutually enrich one another. Reason has its limits; a reasonable man will recognize this. A reasonable man will thus reflect on and be intellectually stimulated by what revelation offers to his mind. Schall argues that the Roman Catholic articulation of revealed truth not only responds to the unsolved problems of political philosophy, but also helps political philosophy be more philosophical.

Schall begins by examining why political philosophy is different from any other intellectual endeavor. The cause or need of philosophy (“to look to and state the truth of things”) must be defended to the politician. Otherwise the city, as in Athens, will end up persecuting and executing a Socrates. Therefore virtue in the city is a prerequisite for philosophy. A love of virtue must be defended to the politician. The city needs to be open to philosophers seeking the truth of virtue.

The need for a political defense of philosophy and virtue points to the paradoxical place that political philosophy occupies in the structure of reality. Politics points to higher things. On the one hand, political action gains its reality from human thinking and choosing: there is no city without man. Yet while man must thus exist as a political being, political philosophy explains, on the other hand, “that there are things that transcend man” and “that the highest things, not merely political things, are worth spending time on.” Politics alone is insufficient to answer questions about the higher things. Schall has devoted his scholarly career (spanning dozens of books and hundreds of articles) to exploring this paradox about politics’ simultaneous dignity and insufficiency.

The philosopher’s study of political things brings him to the limits of political philosophy: notoriously, the best existing cities, and the best theoretical “cities in speech,” are never completely satisfying. Classical political philosophy recognizes that a virtuous life under an orderly constitution in the City of Man is not enough. Clearly, democratic men can live virtuously in an orderly regime. But without philosophy, they will still become tyrants, like the Callicles of Plato’s Gorgias. So too in today’s democracies, we observe “devout” democratic men who, in the name of “equality” are tyrannically imposing an unphilosophic ideology of “rights.” Schall repeatedly points to abortion as a particularly obvious example.

The role of Christian philosophy in politics is to remind the city of what transcends politics. Without this reminder, the city tends to become more and more unreasonable. As Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle imply, it is out of the democratic polity that philosophic tyrants arise. These philosophic tyrants are the worst kind of tyrants because they do not recognize the limits of politics. They thus close themselves off from the truths that transcend politics.

Revelation addresses itself to politics indirectly, through the souls of the active citizens. It attends to the moral problems that politics cannot hope to legislate out of existence. By directing itself to souls, revelation thus leaves political things to reason. Reason is left to philosophize about political things in a prudent way. Above all, prudence must remain aware of the limits of politics. On this point, Schall reiterates the wisdom of the ancient thinkers.

Reason may deliberate about a just economic order. But if revelation observes that, because of our fallen nature, the poor will always be with us, we should be wary of impossible economic utopias. Revelation, precisely because it does not put forth ideological and utopian political projects, is thus a guarantee of political freedom. Moreover, we ought not to fret over the limitations about which revelation does remind us. As Chesterton remarked about the Ten Commandments, revelation does not address our souls with oppressive prohibitions; to the contrary, “it is better to tell a man not to steal than to tell him of the thousands of things he can do without stealing.” Revelation’s moral truths set us politically free.

The relation of politics to metaphysics and theology is best understood in St. Thomas Aquinas. Here Schall makes his case from his expertise in Aristotle and Aquinas. If men remain open to the whole truth about what is, politics and political philosophy will recognize their own incompleteness. They will thus strive to be moderate. This will allow them to pursue truth in a philosophic leisure that culminates in the liturgical worship of the God of revelation.

Roman Catholic political philosophy is the voice of reason in today’s world. Stimulated by faith, it offers a reasonable critique of the reckless utopian political projects of modernity. Schall describes modernity as “a will‑centered autonomy that has no criterion but itself.” Modernity’s mistake is thus to fail to see what St. Thomas saw, that homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est (man is, properly speaking, not human, but superhuman). Man needs God.

Together with Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, Schall eloquently reminds us that the city in which we live is limited and can never fulfill our transcendent destiny. Paradoxically, we realize this wondrous truth only when we think about politics especially when we divest ourselves of imprudent and prideful thinking about the so-called “rights and freedoms” of modern political projects. If a political thinker remains open to revelation, however, “revelation will make the intellectual life more intellectual.”

Christopher S. Morrissey
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada

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