Since the ancient Greeks, there have generally been two opposing impulses for political thought. The first is summed up in Plato’s Republic, the second in Aristotle’s polis. The republic is large and relies on the government to educate and protect the masses. There is safety in numbers. The polis, however, is much smaller and relies upon character and ties of kinship for flourishing, while outside threats abound.
Plato’s approach is akin to standing on a mountain peak and surveying the whole land from afar, without focusing on the tiny details below, while Aristotle’s position is from the valley floor, focused on those same details too hard to see from great heights.
We can see these impulses in two men who have marked 20th-century Catholic social thought, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) and Alasdair MacIntyre (b. 1929). Like Plato, Maritain’s path ascends to the mountaintops with its beautiful vistas, while MacIntyre’s takes Aristotle’s path down to the fertile valley floor.
Social and philosophical context
Before looking closely at these divergent paths, it is important to give some context. Pope Leo XIII is considered the father of Catholic social thought. His pontificate (1878-1903) saw dramatic social upheaval worldwide. His encyclical Rerum Novarum, or “The New Things,” addressed these dramatic changes, such as the French and industrial revolutions and the rise of socialism/communism. The Vatican had also been stripped of significant land holdings, and the various new things were threatening the Church’s presence in several countries.
Pope Leo XIII made it clear that there is no such thing as Catholic politics – there are different approaches outlined in Catholic social teaching but to say there is a perfectly Catholic political way doesn’t exist.
Leo was a close follower of Aquinas and the natural law and wrote Aeterni Patris,the encyclical “On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy.” He was, however, stumped by two issues that couldn’t be resolved through natural law arguments. The first was slavery in Brazil. The natural law arguments up to that point didn’t provide a useful language/rhetoric to deal with it. The other issue was private property. Although private property was an addition to natural law, it wasn’t there from the start, so Leo wanted to make the strongest argument he could for it in light of the rise in socialist/communist ideologies that wanted to eradicate it.
Leo was no fan of classical liberalism, nor were his predecessors, such as Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) who put it on his Syllabus of Errors. The popes were concerned that a liberal state would lead to an atomization and instrumentalization of individuals and communities that would spread to other areas of society and culture.Despite this, Leo decided to borrow a few ideas from liberalism, particularly the language of limited human rights. But new things required, well, new things.
In Maritain’s early career — first as a Marxist, then as a Thomist — he also rejected liberalism. But as the events of the 20th century unfolded, he felt forced to rethink his position, much like Leo before him. The horrors of the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution led him to embrace liberal positions, particularly the notion of human rights.
The product of his rethinking was his book Integral Humanism (1936), which was a type of Christian humanism (also called Thomistic personalism). In this book, Maritain summarized his own political theory into three pithy p’s – personalist, pluralist, and progressive. Christendom of old, he believed, was irretrievably dead and a new approach was necessary. Maritain saw his version of liberal democracy as the way forward.
The first P, personalism, was the embodiment of the idea that man is the center of the universe, but also called to live out his relationship to God and others unselfishly – allowing for his individuality to be respected, while also necessitating his duties and responsibilities to others. The person, he made clear, must be protected both from the state and others (including particularly industrialists, fascists, and atheistic communists) who might infringe upon the elements required to fully live out one’s vocation. Discussion of the human person, commonplace now, was a dramatic change in Catholic thought away from the previous language of nature and ends.
Maritain’s second P, pluralism, can only be understood by looking back to the French Revolution. The Church in France after the revolution was left a mere shadow of its former self, with properties and schools gobbled up by the state. Catholics, looking for a shepherd while their own bishops were weakened for various political reasons, reached out in unprecedented ways to Rome. Known as “ultramontanism” – or “over the mountains” in reference to Rome’s location to France – the authority of the pope swelled because of the vacuum created by the secular forces in France.
The Church, finding its hands tied and unable to re-establish itself in France, took the attitude of “If you can’t beat them, join them” because there simply was no alternative but to embrace liberal tactics in order to remain relevant. The Church had to embrace and promote the notion of “religious freedom” in order to maintain some vestige of its authority in the new secular states.
Maritain saw the value in embracing religious freedom to protect the individual against the state. His secondary interest was due to his wife being ethnically Jewish, and he saw the rising anti-Semitism that would come to a head in World War II. After the war, Maritain found that his experience of assisting with the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights confirmed his thoughts on pluralism since the committee, made up of dramatically different worldviews, came to a consensus on many issues. He is quoted as saying, “We all agree, just don’t ask us why.”
Maritain’s third P, progressivism, was rooted in his sense of history. He saw Thomistic natural law theory extending into his own vision of integral humanism. He viewed progress as lurching toward a one-world government that would provide lasting peace. This one-world government, in his eyes, would not be a leviathan, but a government tempered by the universals of the human person, human rights, and democracy, to create a more peaceful world. He called it the instrumental state, there to serve man and the body politic and not vice versa.
While he may sound like Hegel, Maritain was thinking of a different geist or spirit — that is, the Holy Spirit. Seeing the weakness in the “top down” approach where governmental authority brings piety down to the people, Maritain suggested a bottom-up approach through which the average man would fecundate the whole of society through his striving toward holiness.
During his long stay in the United States for World War II, Maritain came to view America as the potential embodiment for the type of Christian humanism for which he had been advocating since the 1930s. America had the elements necessary for a new Christendom to flourish. Maritain went so far as to say America is “the focus towards which all really progressive energies in the work in history since the disintegration of the Middle Ages have been tending.”
Although his summation of America as the progressive end of history might be startling, Maritain’s ideas about personalism, democracy, and pluralism don’t sound radical to us now. But at the time he feared his work would be put on the Index of Forbidden Books. That changed when Pope John XXIII, who was familiar with Integral Humanism, opened the Second Vatican Council and welcomed it as a Council guide.
Maritain’s influence swelled under the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. “I am a disciple, he is my teacher,” Pope Paul VI said. So, when Paul took over the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, Maritain’s “vision of a new Christian civilization which was ‘lay rather than clerical, democratic rather than authoritarian'” was brought to the foreground.
After Vatican II, Maritain’s influence as the most important Catholic philosopher in the 20th century faded dramatically. The cause was largely his 1966 book The Peasant of Garonne, in which he was very critical of those who interpreted Vatican II to mean whatever they wanted it to mean. Maritain was publicly ostracized for his remarks. Over fifty years later, Maritain seems a footnote to the council instead of a major influence.
There are plenty of arguments to dispute Maritain’s work and his vision of progress toward a new Christendom has repudiated itself, but some of his ideas were and remain effective in thwarting totalitarianism. Pope John Paul II used many of his ideas to effectively bring down Soviet communism, namely, his emphasis upon the dignity of the human person that first rallied those in Poland and then spread to the rest of the Soviet empire.
Alasdair MacIntyre spent decades as a Marxist. He abandoned it because of the violence of Stalinism, but also because he saw that it became a different sort of religion for its adherents. What he maintained, however, was the anti-liberal stance that he had held since age 17.
MacIntyre’s rejection of liberalism was based upon his belief that through it man is denuded of any understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and thus enslaved in his own autonomy and ambitions – independent of his given community or nation-state. In MacIntyre’s view, summarizes Thomas D. D’Andrea:
Society is viewed as constituted out of pre-existent individuals each with their own and very disparate ends/ultimate purposes. The common good of the social order is regarded as something procedural rather than substantive; promoting and contributing to the common good is no longer viewed as the object of each person’s true desire.
MacIntyre saw any universalizing notions, “that remove man from his history, culture, ethos, family, telos, do little to aid man to find authentic human nature.” He believes capitalism traps man as a consumer.
In 1980, MacIntyre published his groundbreaking work After Virtue. It is a book that wants to return to Aristotle and his polis, while pessimistically viewing the difficulty and possibility of doing that very thing. In it, MacIntyre concludes that modern academic philosophy and the Enlightenment project simply do not work to answer two fundamental questions: 1) the theoretical question of ‘What is the best way for man to live?’; and 2) the practical question of ‘How does the ‘plain person’ live out ‘the best way to live’ in daily life?’
MacIntyre’s ultimate argument is that ‘Aristotle got it right.’ Aristotelianism sidesteps the academic debates and the current ethos that sees “the good” as something that is merely a subjective choice of an individual, without any reference to human nature and what is ultimately good for man.
MacIntyre embraced Aristotle’s notion of practices. Practices are those jobs, tasks, or activities that allow man to hone his character while focusing on another end – such as carpentry, or fishing. He describes them as the spontaneous social constellations which make up the warp and woof of human society. Through the practices, virtues are learned because of the demands of the work; e.g. in farming one learns discipline, prudence, perseverance, and resilience. The goal is not to generate capital, but to contribute to the common good through relationships, growth in virtue, and a finished product. Practices as MacIntyre views them, are the fabric of small-scale and local communities, such as an ancient city, medieval communes, or a modern farming co-op.
MacIntyre also emphasizes the importance of storytelling. Children learn through stories which norms are acceptable and heroic, and which behaviors should be avoided. And if there is no teleology, no goals to which every man strives, then stories are hard to tell.
Eventually embracing Thomism and Catholicism in the early 1980s, MacIntyre saw in the natural law approach of Aquinas a similarity between Thomas’ thinking and the older non-liberal tradition within the Church prior to the trends within the 19th and 20th centuries.
Benefits and deficiencies
There are great benefits to a Platonic republic that we live under today, such as peace (we haven’t seen a hot world war since the 1940s), dramatic reductions in poverty, and increases in life expectancy. We have great teeth, air-conditioned homes, man caves, and cute shoes. And, as mentioned above, totalitarian regimes have been toppled through the graspable notion of rights.
As for the deficiencies, like high up on the mountains, sometimes you can get so high above the tree line that things don’t grow, nothing flourishes. Virtue isn’t necessary for the liberal vision. It is easy to hide vices.
The benefit of the valley or polis approach is that it is fertile. Things grow on a smaller scale. Priorities become sharpened through wars, famines, struggle that comes when communities are not protected by an overarching state. There are clear roles for every member, sometimes merely to survive. Heroism is much more in demand. MacIntyre would add, men live within a context, with a sense of teleology. And a storytelling culture has an easier time emphasizing the human values at the core of the culture.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville presented a stark example of the two sides. We know, based upon his work as a promoter of democracy, which side appealed to him more. He wrote:
What do you expect from society and its government?
Do you want to inspire men with a certain scorn of material goods? Do you hope to engender deep convictions and prepare the way for acts of profound devotion?
Are you concerned with refining mores, elevating manners, and causing the arts to blossom? Do you desire poetry, renown, and glory?
Do you expect it to attempt great enterprises and, whatever be the result of its efforts, to leave a great mark on history?
If in your view that should be the main object of men in society, do not support democratic government; it surely will not lead you to that goal.
But if you think it profitable to turn man’s intellect and moral activity toward the necessities of physical life and use them to produce well-being, if you think that reason is more use to men than genius, if your object is not to create heroic virtues but rather tranquil habits, if you would rather contemplate vices than crimes and prefer fewer transgressions at the cost of fewer splendid deeds, if in place of a brilliant society you are content to live in one that is prosperous, and finally, if in your view the main object of government is not to achieve the greatest strength or glory for the nation as a whole but to provide for every individual therein the utmost well-being, protecting him as far as possible from all afflictions then it is good to make conditions equal and to establish democratic government.
G.K. Chesterton makes a similar argument in his book on St. Francis, but he sides with the valley, not the mountaintop. Speaking of the small towns of medieval Europe who were continually at war with each other, he wrote:
And if we infer from our own experience that war paralyzed civilization, we must at least admit that these warring towns turned out a number of paralytics who go by the names of Dante and Michael Angelo, Aristo and Titian, Leonardo and Columbus, not to mention Catherine of Siena and the subject of this story [St. Francis of Assisi]. While we lament all this local patriotism as a hubbub of the Dark Ages, it must seem a rather curious fact that about three quarters of the greatest men who ever lived came out of these little towns and were often engaged in these little wars. It remains to be seen what will ultimately come out of our large towns; but there has been no sign of anything of this sort since they became large.
Both impulses represent real goods and real values that represent choices people have made throughout history about how they want to live. While these paths are in opposition to each other, there is a way to see them together. One of the best parts of having an organization that has been around for 2,000 years is that there is a lot of data to look at. The Church has made it clear that people can embrace very different ways to live and become holy. There are huge differences between St. Francis and St. Dominic, or St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, or even Maritain and MacIntyre.
It shouldn’t be shocking that these different approaches have both been embraced by the Church during various periods of history.
As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2007 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate,“It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!