Transcendence and the Meaning of Politics

Contemplation provides the capacity to understand the meaning and limits of politics.

In a recent phone conversation, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend that I had not spoken with in almost two years. He eventually got around to asking me what I was currently doing with my life, and I told him that I was studying to obtain a degree in philosophy. A brief moment of silence was then followed by the usual inquiry of those studying philosophy: “What can you do with that?” A relative of mine made a similar remark, a few weeks prior, concerning my philosophic adventures, asking: “Why aren’t you studying business or law, something that will be more useful?”

This notion of learning something for its “usefulness” brings to mind Josef Pieper’s remark, following Aquinas, that the common good of society requires that there should be those who devote themselves to a life of contemplation and philosophy. This particular devotion, Pieper continued, was not going to satisfy the “common need” of the social order: “The common need is an essential part of the common good, but the later is far more comprehensive,” Pieper explains.

The point requiring emphasis is that there are things worth knowing for their own sake, and not for some utilitarian end or purpose. The truth is man who conforms his mind to that reality which is knowable, and also not of his own creation. This is something, therefore,  that can be “useful.” The purpose of contemplation is to know the ultimate meaning of our existence, realizing that we have not fashioned our own human nature, but have received it from another as a gift. The liberation of confronting the highest things equips the human person to know, and experience, the full truth about himself as man. Pope John Paul II insightfully understood this to be the greatest crisis of the modern world.

These preliminary thoughts are made in light of the Obama administration’s recent declaration that Catholic institutions must provide health insurance coverage for its employers, including access to the “right” to contraceptives. As many have noted, the implications this decision will have for religious freedom, and its First Amendment protections, are both very real and dangerous for us. The issue has, thankfully, called for a deeper reflection on the true nature of politics, while insisting upon a revisiting of the relationship between transcendence and the political order.

In his encyclical, Centissimus Annus, Pope John Paul II stated that many of the “old” forms of totalitarianism and authoritarianism have not been completely vanquished. The Pope was pointing to the fact that new intellectual errors are rare; what we may be seeing are those same old errors dressed in new clothing. One of the new “clothes” under which these old errors are resurfacing today is in the Western idea of democracy. The Pope notes that democracy can only flourish when there is a proper conception of the human person, recognizing the kind of being that man is, while seeking to protect society from human anthropologies that distort this truth. The Pope further observed:

 Nowadays, there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy, and the basic attitude, which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth, and firmly adhere to it, are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation, according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard; that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values, easily turns into open, or thinly disguised, totalitarianism (#46).

The “ultimate truth,” which the Pope is referring to, is fundamentally about man and what he is. Aristotle rightly contends that man is “political” by nature, without concluding from this that politics is the highest science, since it is not responsible for making “man to be man.” The human being fully participates in the order of society. This is a great good for him, as he is unable to lead a good life on his own. Yet, his participation in things political does not entail the entirety of himself, as he recognizes something transcending political society. This is the essential factor limiting politics to what it is, and nothing more. The agnostic and relativistic conceptions of the world ultimately understand man as the highest being who, according to Aristotle, can elevate politics to metaphysics. If the polity sees no transcendent order beyond itself, then it can create limitations on one’s ability to oppose political injustices. Pope Benedict describes this situation, saying: “Man will be compelled to submit to a conception of reality imposed on him by coercion, and not reached by virtue of his own reason and the exercise of his own freedom (#29).”

The manifestation of a tyranny, particularly under the guise of democracy, is rooted in man being solely defined in terms of economics or politics. This “humanism” is built on the presupposition that any concern for the transcendent order, the highest things, is distracting. Man is surely one who works, but he cannot exist solely, to paraphrase Pieper, for a world of “total work.” In his famous book, Guide for the Perplexed, E.F. Schumacher highlighted that, at the end of the 20th century, we know how we should be ruled, and what sort of economy will produce an abundance of material goods for all of mankind. Current problems concerning the economy and job creation need to be rightly understood, since they provide a real human good for man. However, the continual emphasis on job restoration, and decreasing unemployment, should not lead us to think that merely working is what defines us as persons. Francis Fukayama has grasped this so very well when he explains that:

No regime—no “socio-economic system”—is able to satisfy all men in all places. This includes liberal democracy. This is not a matter of the incompleteness of the democratic revolution … Rather, the dissatisfaction arises precisely where democracy has triumphed most completely: it is a dis-satisfaction with liberty and equality.”

Like Schumacher, Fukayama essentially fears the onslaught of boredom and stagnation. A society that can maintain civil peace, foster jobs, and provide abundant material goods can still inaugurate a form of totalitarianism if they cease to realize that these accomplishments, alone, cannot satisfy the human heart. Even Aquinas, in his De Regno (“On Kingship”), points out that the ruler (or rulers) of a society must realize that attaining for society the necessary material or economic goods for survival and prosperity, are to be ordained to man’s fitting end— namely, happiness—which transcends them all. In his book, The Mind that is Catholic, Fr. Schall writes that even when the polity is at its best:

The wholeness of each individual requires, and can be given, an end proper to itself, that is not that of a political relation, or order based on human interaction alone. It is because of this position that the “ground” of being, itself, can pull each of us (231).

The Catholic Church has existed during a variety of political regimes, continually acknowledging its own political limitations. It is not a political entity, but it does have something to say about politics, even though many of its members disagree. The Church does not declare that society should be so organized as a monarchy, aristocracy, or even a democracy. Yet, she does affirm the truth, from long experience, that some regimes are better than others, and more conducive to attaining the natural and supernatural goods needed. Catholicism recognizes that it has received its being from another, and is incapable of teaching anything other than what it has received. The Church receives “the meaning of man” from Divine Revelation. “In order to know man—authentic man, man in his fullness—one must know God,” said Pope Paul VI. He then quotes Saint Catherine of Siena, who, in prayer, expressed the same idea: “In your nature, O eternal Godhead, I shall know my own nature” (CA, #55).

It is at this point, that we are brought back to the beginning of our reflections, concerning the “useless” nature of philosophic and contemplative things. There are things in this life that are worth knowing “for their own sake,” knowledge of which is more than merely functionary. The Church constantly calls upon society to see the necessary relationship between the right order of society, and the order of men’s souls. We are unable to establish the former unless the latter takes precedence, affirming what Jacques Maritain calls “the primacy of the spiritual.” C.S. Lewis’ suggestion of “first things first,” is a clarification of the timeless truth that only when God is understood, will man be properly understood, therefore, orienting his “political activity” according to the ultimate truth of who he is. Otherwise, political action will become “the will to power,” an imposition of a self-constructed reality thrust upon others. Although politicians have demonstrated otherwise, the discipline of politics is a honestum bonum, an honest good. This, however, is not our summum bonum, our greatest good, since we are, ourselves, not the highest beings.

In his timeless classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper recalls the primary role that the “highest things” must play for any good society. He states:

And it is, by no means, unimportant for a nation, and for the realization of the ‘common good,’ that a place should be made for activity which is not useful work in the sense of being utilitarian… “I have never bothered or asked,” Goethe said to Friedrich Soret in 1830, “in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim; it was the necessary result”…It is necessary for the perfection of human society, Aquinas writes, that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation—nota bene—necessary not only for the good of the individual, who so devotes himself, but for the good of human society.

Contemplation provides the capacity to understand the meaning and limits of politics, while protecting man from an intellectually constructed form of reality created by politicians, as well as from a world of “total work.” A society that defines man in terms of politics, economics, or “ making a living,” could not say such things.

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About Brian Jones 34 Articles
Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.