Monthly Archives: October 2011

We must obey God rather than men

“We must obey God rather than men.” -our first pope, ACTS 5:29

The voice of conscience is something we have a great responsibility to answer.  It is not always right, but it should always be followed and obeyed.  Thomas Aquinas says much to make sense of this in some of his Disputed Questions, and the same [supposed] dilemma is addressed by Pope John Paul the Great in The Splendor of Truth.

Certainly, the very Thomist Pope Leo XIII would agree.  It would be more along the lines of the “likely never to be canonized” Thomas Hobbes to make such statements that are almost quoted in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors when it comes to government.  If we read Hobbes’ Leviathan, and then read Jacques Maritain’s Man and the State, we find polar opposites in the key issue of sovereignty.

God alone is Sovereign, and no King, no congress, or any other person of people can rightly be called this.  To be sovereign means to transcend and this is only possible with God.  The idea of the sovereign king and the sovereign state is simply a distortion of what sovereignty actually means.

However, in our day, we have been so heavily influenced by this line of thought that we uphold the state as a God.  We decide that the state is our father or mother and needs to provide for us (in the USA, we no longer live in a country based on the right to PURSUE happiness; happiness is an entitlement that the government should provide).  If the state makes a law, then legal makes right and wrong.  Those of us who think that right and wrong, rather, should determine what is to be legal, rather than the other way around, are looked upon as confused.  Legal positivism is the way of the world, and this is acceptable because the state is now the sovereign entity.

If and when God is allowed to rule again, we will see the world move in the right direction.  But we have a shorter syllabus of errors we must avoid, even when thinking this way:

  1. It will not lead to a Utopia, which is only reserved for those who are welcomed to Heaven.
  2. The phrase “when God is allowed to rule again” must be qualified: God is, no doubt, in charge, and those who fail to realize it in this life will see it with perfect clarity in the next.
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Reductionism (nothing but-ism)

This issue is nothing but a lack of morals.

Or rather, it is nothing but a failure in understanding the physical world.

Or is it nothing but a metaphysical error?

I think the problem is nothing but the fact that modernism is full of “nothing but-isms.” When all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.  This is the sad approach taken by many in contemporary (we can call it “modern”) times.

The mind is nothing but a very advanced machine.  Carl Sagan is, according to himself, “nothing but a collection of atoms bearing the name ‘Carl Sagan.’” And modernist reductionism is nothing but a sad lack of a big picture perspective on reality. This last statement is a reductionist statement, but this one I believe is fairly accurate.

But heresies and errors seem to show up in pairs.  Thus, for example, we have idealism and empiricism, each taking one piece of the truth and emphasizing it until they eliminate another portion of reality from their worldview. But as always, heresies are rarely new (I believe this ties in with the phrase of “those who neglect to know the past are doomed to repeat it”), and extreme realism and nominalism seem to be the precursors to these errors respectively.

The “nothing but” school reduces everything to the one part of reality it [thinks it] understands. Reductionism simply means that “all is reduced to my specialty;” hardly a humble approach.  We must remember that one of the primary dispositions for gaining a true understanding of anything is humility.  Reductionist theories are, knowingly or not, most arrogant instead.  Pythagoras knew numbers well, so obviously, the universe was MADE of numbers.

Let’s take a simple scientific example, and see if we can “explode” Carl Sagan’s thought.  Many say that things are nothing but the sum of their physical parts.  But oxygen and hydrogen, for example, are two highly flammable things.  Let’s put them together, and try to light this “sum” on fire.  I think we will already have to water down the “nothing but” theory in simple science.

David Hume, seeing that an event “B” followed event “A” came to the conclusion that, in our experience, we keep seeing the unrelated “B” follow “A” and we confusedly link the two as cause and effect.  This stems from his empiricism, where all is reduced to the material, where we cannot “see” cause and effect. But only that “B” follows “A” with an “odd regularity.”

When a mind such as Kant’s reflects on this, this skepticism, combined with a Cartesian idealism, leads to a loss of trust in the mind to do metaphysical reasoning, and further, to the strangest attempt to save morality I can think of.  In fact, the only thing stranger that Kant’s moral theory is that most the world seems to, for the most part, follow it. Or rather, people follow an eclectic and confused (and thus even less coherent) form of this philosophy.

Now, there seems to be an objective truth with no object.  A truth that is reduced to “I feel this is ok, therefore it is” or its opposite.  We become our own gods because of Kant.  If I can say “I would have done the same in his shoes,” then its ok. So, If I would have gotten an abortion in that case, then its ok for someone else to do likewise.

Who cares how I decided that it was ok for me to do such?  Morality is nothing but “what I would have others do to me” and so, I am the final arbiter in matters moral.  Step aside, God.  I am now in charge.

Nominalism, Subjectivism, and the U.S. Supreme Court

Post-modern society claims to be ‘blind to individual concepts of good.’ As such it must let the individual decide.

But what if one of these “individuals” is not part of creation, but the creator, and what’s more, goodness itself?  If there is an objective truth, then the whole thing is ridiculous.

We would certainly be called fools if we were each to walk into a forest and “decide for ourselves” if there are indeed trees here. But our problem is deeper than this. We now say, “I don’t know if there is a forest, because a forest is made of trees, which would be plural “trees.” But in nominalism, there are no two things that share a nature.  If no “two trees,” then no forest.

We not only cannot see the forest for the trees, but cannot see the trees for the forest.  We deny the existence of both, or rather, we see a group of individual things, and we cannot classify the group (forest/morality) or the particulars (trees/commands, prohibitions).  It seems to me, however, that there is no way to deny creation.  We simply transfer the creation story from God to ourselves.

If every individual enjoys a fundamental right to define “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” then virtually every positive law not justified by compelling state interest could be trumped by the right spelled out in Casey. (Hittinger pg.147) This is merely quoting the words of Planned Parenthood vs Casey, 1992.  In order to uphold abortion as legal, it had to go so far as to define subjectivity as the objective truth (at least as far as society is concerned).

Hobbes states in his Leviathan that

To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues…It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it.

And a little later

For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust…

Therefore before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant, and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth.

We should reflect on how much this line of thinking has become the basis of our contemporary society.  A thing is just or unjust because the State makes it so.  According to Hobbes, there was no such thing as actual justice or injustice until a commonwealth is set up.  Right and wrong are completely due to the law of the State, and before it there is no objective right or wrong. Thus, today you will hear that “action A is moral, clearly, because it is legal.” Shouldn’t it rather be legal only if it is good morally?  We have it backwards, it seems.

It is no longer God, but I who defines my “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.”

One of the biggest problems I can think of dealing with nominalism, on a reasonably informed faith aspect, is the Incarnation. How could Christian theologians like Occam believe that Christ “took on human nature” if no such thing as human nature exists? Obviously, we will be led from nominalism to occasionalism. If there is no human nature for Christ to take on, the fact that He “became man” (whatever that now means) is merely arbitrary. He could have come as a rock or a turtle or an atom of hydrogen; for what would it matter “what” He came as, since this has no true relation to those He came to save?

This topic deals with a theology issue, but the question is completely philosophical. The fact that this has led many to fideism is certainly responsible for the failure of those who reject reason to be able to defend, in any coherent way, the truths of natural law, and our country and it’s laws reflect this inadequacy.

Obviously, this is a brief reflection.  Much more will be said later on the several matters brought up here.

A Few Precursors to Aquinas

Saint Anselm, Abelard and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

 

“I believe, that I may understand.” St. Anselm was born in 1033 at a time when Platonic realism dominated philosophically in the Christian west.  He is most well known for his Proslogion and Monologion, but produced many other valuable writings as well.  Certainly, no philosophical proof of God has been more attacked or defended than his later named ontological argument, as presented in the Proslogion. (I discussed this briefly here)

 

St. Anselm did not seek to understand so that his understanding would convince him of the truth (or lack thereof) of the Christian religion.  Rather, he believed that his faith was a gift of God, and that a lover of God should seek to know Him both through revealed truth and reason apart from revelation.  He was certainly a theologian primarily, but his works are filled with philosophical insight and speculation.  Certainly, his ontological argument is an attempt from reason alone to prove the existence of God, even though he preempts it with Scripture: “The fool has said in his heart…”

 

There is no doubt that his ontological argument for God’s existence has had many supporters and opponents alike.  Opponents of the argument even include fellow Catholic saints such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who, understanding that the nature of God is not immediately apparent to us, would refute the argument as circularly reasoned.  But such well known philosophers as Descartes and Kant have given much ink to the argument.  If this argument was all that Anselm had to offer philosophy, it would alone be enough to give him a concrete place in the history of reasoned thought.

 

Much more given to direct philosophical speculation, and often treading dangerous waters when it came to the Catholic magisterium’s view of his works, was Peter Abelard. Born less than fifty years after Anselm, Europe had already changed much in the way of education, as Aristotle’s works were being reintroduced into western thought.  However, it was Aristotle’s Logical works that came first, and often, as is the case especially with Abelard, logic was philosophy.

 

Etienne Gilson has argued that Peter Abelard, along with others of his time, often dangerously speculated into areas of metaphysics with a logical mindset, not understanding the limits of logic itself.  This often got Abelard into trouble with the hierarchy, as he often ended in rationalizing truths of the faith to make them “logical.” In no way do we imply that the faith can be illogical, but it need not be able to be reasoned to.  There is a difference between irrational and supra-rational, and we need not become rationalists in order to avoid the error of fideism.

 

Abelard was a brilliant thinker, and no puppet of those he learned from.  He argued against the extreme realism (Platonism and Neo-Platonism) he had been taught, often putting his teachers to shame.  Where he lacked no acumen of the mind, he was often in need of humility.  Abelard did not seem to humbly submit his writings to a higher authority with words to the affect of “advise me where I prove ignorant, for I am unfit for the task, but with God’s help…” as find in the writings of Anselm, and most other Christian writers before him.  Abelard was very intelligent, and he certainly knew it.

 

An opponent of Abelard was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, born in 1090 and so only a little over a decade younger than Abelard.  St. Bernard can be considered a mystic, and his writings and person are rarely treated in works and histories dedicated to philosophy.  However, his dealings with Abelard and with heresies allow him a proper place in the study of medieval reasoned thought.

 

There was a struggle, well known by this time, between many of the theologians and the logicians.  Often, the theologians set out to protect the faith and the faithful from the speculation and often (whether intentional or not) heretical views of the philosophers.  St. Bernard succeeded in having some of the doctrines of Abelard condemned by the church.

However, the struggle between faith and reason was not over, nor will it ever perhaps be, but struggles such as those between Abelard and St. Bernard often bear good fruit.  In some ways, scholasticism was born or at least accelerated by Peter Abelard, and the great syntheses of philosophical and theological thought would soon be compiled over the next several centuries, through the writings of such great men as St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, and Duns Scotus.

 

St. Anselm exemplified, in his time, faith which seeks understanding.  And true understanding will never contradict reason, although it may seem to if our reason be in error.  This is the place of logic, and Abelard was a first rate logician.  However, pure logic cannot always lead us to the truth in matters of higher things, which, within reason, often belong to the field of metaphysics.  While revealed truth need not replace reason, it gives boundaries so that we may not err, or at least know that we have erred when we do.  This is the place of the Church and her dogma’s, that we may know the correct interpretation of revealed truth, and so not stray from it.  No one in the early 12th century worked more tirelessly to defend to doctrines of the Church than St. Bernard.

 

All three men were pious Catholics, and none would ever intentionally stray from their faith.  It was the atmosphere created by these giants, as different as they often were in their views and speculations of truth, that would set the stage for that pinnacle 13th century, from whence we get what we would now call the perennial philosophy.

Eucharist: Removal of the ban to eat from the Tree of Life

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Gen. 3:22)

I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” (John 6:51)

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt 26:26-28)

So Jesus is nailed to a TREE, and we partake of that very sacrifice at the Mass. At the Mass, we eat from the TREE OF LIFE.

Thomas Aquinas and the Arabic Philosophers: A Brief Look

“Say, ‘He is Allah, the One;

Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;

He begets not, and neither is He begotten;

And there is nothing that can be compared to Him.”

Qur’an 112:1-4

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.”

Deuteronomy 6:4

 

The Arabic philosophers of the middle ages took various positions in affirming the divine simplicity and unchangeableness of God when seeking to understand His relation to all other existing things.

All sought to defend the divine simplicity, but in various and often mutually exclusive ways.  It would be up to Thomas Aquinas, familiar with their efforts at a unification of faith and reason, to reconcile the unchangeable God and His “relation” to creation.

NEOPLATONISM

“God” according to Plotinus, the unofficial founder of Neoplatonism, is the One, and is beyond being. Being itself, for him, has a finite character, as it applies to that which we experience, and we only experience things that are finite and changing.  We can see here a bit of Aristotelian epistemological realism, but with a heavy bias towards the metaphysics of Plato.  What else should we expect from Plotinus?

God, who is unchangeable, is necessarily “beyond” being, although  this is certainly not to say that he does no exist.  It will probably always be somewhat unclear exactly what this means, but the point seems to be to keep God from being “part of our world.”

This point itself will be shown to be of great importance to the Islamic and Christian beliefs about God, although to say God is beyond being or other than being will not of itself always be the reasoned answer.

EARLY ISLAMIC THOUGHT

Early Islamic thought on God’s immutablility is highly influenced by Neoplatonic thought, as we might expect.  If we start with al-Kindi, we see, in On First Philosophy, that a major theme of his metaphysics is on wahda, or oneness, an attribute that can only be truly said of God. Any other thing, such as “one person,” is really one and many, it is spread out, it has parts, etc.

Al-Kindi sees God as active in the role of creation, however.  In this, he differs from many of the later Neoplatonic Arabic philosophers, who adhere more closely to the pure emanationist scheme of classical Neoplatonism.

Al-Farabi, who followed soon after al-Kindi, is a perfect example of such thought.  His cosmology and metaphysics tie together in a system of hierarchical emanationism.  This certainly still has an Aristotelian flavor, as he sees God as the prime mover, moving the spheres of the cosmos (through passion for the One), which in turn are causes of movement in the terrestrial sphere.

One still wonders, with an emanationist natural theology, how the “multiplication of gears starts the clock,” or rather, how merely multiplying the levels between us and God removes God from an relation to us.

AVICENNA

When we now turn to Avicenna, we will see a more strict adherence to Aristotelian thought.

Avicenna was much more in line with Aristotelian metaphysics , and he deeply engaged his mind in trying to show that God was absolutely unchangeable.  This led him to a denial of creation, for this would be an act of God that would change Him in some way, or be a change in Him.  The eternity of the world, as understood by Aristotle, was also key in his thought.

Necessary being was an important doctrine of his, as was the beginnings of a distinction between essence and existence.  These were highly influential on how he understood God, and so we will examine a few of his statements on these two matters at present.

“From what we have asserted it follows necessarily that that whose existence is necessary is not relative, not changeable, not multiple, not sharing in respect to the existence which is peculiar to it.” (Healing, I, 6) One however, must wonder at his need for a “cause” of that which does not exist. “Furthermore, everything whose existence is possible has, when it is considered in respect to itself, both its existence and its non-existence from a cause.” We will see that “necessary existence, having no share in reference to that which is peculiar to it” can certainly be agreed to, although in a somewhat different way, when we come to St. Thomas Aquinas.

As for essence and existence, this will be an important distinction for St. Thomas as well.  There is much debate on exactly how Avicenna understood these terms. “Existence, according to Avicenna, is superadded to essence or, in alternate language, it is its accident,” says an article in Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Our Cambridge Companion would say this claim is not certain.

ST. THOMAS AQUINAS

We will here look at some questions in purely philosophical terms as St. Thomas examined them.  Important for our inquiry will be Thomas’ work Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei, or Disputed Question on the Power of God.  We will refer here primarily to Question 7 on the Simplicity of the Divine essence, especially articles VIII-XI.  Below are some important quotes from this section as regards God’s immutabilty in the light of his relation to contingent being:

Article VIII: Is There Any Relation Between God and the Creature?

 

  1. The Philosopher(Aristotle) proves (Phys. v) that there can be no movement in relation: since without any change in the thing that is related to another, the relation can cease for the sole reason that this other is changed. Thus it is clear with regard to action that there is no movement in respect of action except metaphorically and improperly speaking, just as we say that one who passes from inaction into action is changed: and this, would not be the case if relation or action signified something abiding in the subject. Hence it is evident that it is not incompatible with a thing’s simplicity to have many relations towards other things: indeed the more simple a thing is the greater the number of its concomitant relations: since its power is so much the less limited and consequently its causality so much the more extended.
  2. Although God is not in the same genus as the creature as a thing contained in a genus, he is nevertheless in every genus as the principle of the genus: and for this reason there can be relation between the creature and God as between effect and principle.
  3. From whichever extreme a change is wrought in that which caused the relationship, the relationship between them ceases. Accordingly from the fact that a change is wrought in the creature, a relation begins ‘to be attributed to God. Hence he cannot be said to become except metaphorically; inasmuch as he is like a thing that becomes, through something new that is said about him: thus we say (Ps. 89): Lord, thou art become our refuge.
  4. God’s existence does not depend on creatures as neither does the builder’s existence depend on the house: wherefore just as it is accidental to the builder that the house exists, so is it accidental to God that the creature exists. For we say that anything without which a thing can exist is accidental to it.

Article VIII dealt with the question “Is There Any Relation Between God and the Creature?” Article X, however, will deal with the question “Is God Really Related to the Creature So That this Relation Be Something in God?”  We will see that, although it may appear to be a similar question to that of Article VIII, it is actually quite different.  The answers of Thomas will demonstrate such:

  1. As the knowable thing is the measure of knowledge, so is God the measure of all things, as the Commentator says (Metaph. x). Now the knowable thing is not referred to knowledge by a real relation existing in it, but rather by the relation of knowledge to it, as the Philosopher says (Metaph. v). Therefore seemingly neither is God related to the creature by a real relation in him.
  2. “Likeness is not reciprocal between cause and effect, for an effect is said to be like its cause and not vice versa.” (Quoting Pseudo-Dionysius, Div. Nom. ix) Now the same would seem to apply to other relations as to that of likeness. Therefore, seemingly neither is there reciprocity in the relations between God and the creature, and we cannot argue that because the creature is really related to God, therefore is God really related to the creature.

This last response is the key to Thomas solution.  As opposed to what Avicenna would say in regards to creation, Thomas could go on from here to say that the creature, including its contingency and its coming to be, impose no change on God, even though there is an absolutely real relationship from the creature to God.

 

A relationship from creature to God does not, in other words, impose a relationship on God to the creature.  We are forced to say that the relationship “half” has a corresponding relationship “double.” What we are not forced to say is that a relationship of and in creation to God, even as coming to be from God, has a counter in God Himself.

CONCLUSION

The Arabic philosophers of the middle ages took various positions in affirming the divine simplicity and unchangeableness of God when seeking to understand His relation to all other existing things:

Allah is one, and we have seen that, whatever the philosophical presuppositions,  nothing that gave way to a “changing god” would be tolerated.

All sought to defend the divine simplicity, but in various and often mutually exclusive ways:

The Arabic philosophers used various metaphysical theories to try and explain reality, whether it be that of Neoplatonism, a strict Aristotelianism, or even an abandonment of the idea that  any philosophy itself could accurately say anything of truth about God.

It would be up to Thomas Aquinas, familiar with their efforts at a unification of faith and reason, to reconcile the unchangeable God and His “relation” to creation:

Thomas Aquinas, with his doctrine of analogy and his understanding of God through both philosophical insight and Biblical revelation, especially that of Exodus 3:14, could come to the metaphysical and logical conclusion that God could be shown to be true            creator and true unchanging existence Himself.

He Who is, Is.

Is Man or the State supreme? Jacques Maritain vs. Karl Marx

 Is man or the state supreme?

 

Jacques Maritain (Man and the State) vs. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels

 

So what is the state of the question? Is man or the state supreme? We could look at this question in several ways, and in fact we will, for many have viewed this question from not only varied but conflicting points of view. In this short essay, we will primarily look at the arguments of Karl Marx and of Jacques Maritain, as well as those who highly influenced them, such as Hegel for the former and Aristotle and Aquinas for the latter. We will also review a little background on each of these primary authors, but only so much as will help us understand their positions.

The first thing we must ask, however, is “what is the state of the question”. What do we mean by the question “who is supreme”? We seem to assume here that someone thing exists for the perfection of another, implying a hierarchy where one thing serves another. One thing then is a tool for the end of the other. One thing is a means and the other is in end.

In reality the question is ultimately defined by our understanding of the human person. If the person is mere matter or if the person is somehow ultimate (which it would be hard to see how a person can be both the same time) will be the fulcrum on which we base our hierarchy.  If merely material being, it would be hard to justify “less material” being primary over “more matter.” Quantity would rightly be seen as the primary determinant; more in the material sense would be more in every sense. But if man is somehow ultimate than the mere idea of grouping man together, although important, would not thereby be superior to him. Jacques Maritain’s view of man as ultimate places the state at the service of man. The view of Karl Marx, rather, understands man as merely a part of the bigger political picture.

The Communist manifesto was written in 1848 and is arguably the most influential short political document ever produced. Although Marx would argue that it is a popular pamphlet and not his philosophical and historical proof of his position, a careful reading along with the many prefaces to the different editions of the manifesto provide us with most of the information we will need to get a picture of Karl Marx understanding of the human person and of the role of the state and society.

Karl Marx was of the school of dialectical materialism. He was therefore a determinist, both in individual persons and in society as a whole. People are merely a product of the society from which they come, and further, as a result of the matter they are composed of. Marx was certainly an empiricist and an atheist. Therefore, there was no such thing as man created in the image of God, but he is merely a product of the passing of time; society and the individuals it creates are merely that a thesis, antithesis, and emerging synthesis, a process that continues in a materially determined way.

One wonders, of course, how such a man justifies the preaching of his doctrine. It is much the same as the Calvinist who, believing all is completely predetermined by God, nevertheless preaches to his fellow man to choose to believe or not believe what he teaches. If Karl Marx determinism and historical dialectic are indeed true to his program for the reform of society would come about or not come about regardless of his teaching it. One might argue that it’s coming about is because of his teaching and that he is merely a tool determined himself, but this simply extends the question, for he believes he is teaching this to some purpose.

What that purpose may truly be, however, is to be questioned as well.  In a world with no god, a world that is merely coming-to-be but with no real objective point where it is going, what is “purpose” anyway? Marx materialism gives no final cause, no real direction, but it does call for action on his part.  And so, Marx is active, and his political thought, put into action, has probably had a greater effect on more human lives than almost any other in history.  Ideas have consequences, and sometimes, consequences to millions of lives.

Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher who lived from 1882-1973.  He was very much a Thomist and wrote extensively on the human person and society, as he played a major role in the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights and spent a great deal of time in America and Canada, which influenced his view of these types of democracy.

Maritain was certainly of the school of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, although his early formative years were anything but.  The two primary sources we will look at here are his The Person and the Common Good and Man and the State. Certainly, Maritain’s many works contain gems that pertain to this topic, but here we see enough to gain clear insight into his picture of man and of the role of the political society.

For Maritain, man is central.  Created in the image of God and for God, having his eternal destiny in the beatific vision, man is primary.  There is no question, therefore, that the role of politics is one subservient to the eternal end of each person as a person.  Society and the common good are in no way neglected as true goods and even true ends, but only as a temporal end, which could never stand above the eternal.

This, we see, is the key difference between the positions of Marx and Maritain.  If our 80 or 90 years on earth is all we have, then perhaps, like the beasts, the continuation of the species becomes primary.  For a beast or a plant, it goes beyond itself by the succession of its kind, but in no other way.

Indeed, for a herd of cattle, the continuation of the species of cattle is primary, as each head of cattle is merely a part of the big picture, spread out over time. It may be expedient for some cattle to be put down, so that the others may thrive, lest the whole group starve, for example.  This would be necessary for the preservation of the whole, which is superior.

But what if man is different?  What if each man is something (or rather someone) that persists and has an utmost importance in his own right (even though this “right” is a gift)?  Viewed in this way, could we really treat the community of men as the herd of cattle?  No, because each man is not for the sake of the community, but rather, the community serves the ends of man. Or rather, the community serves the ends of “men,” each as unique person, rather than “man” in the abstract.

Maritain thus tells us that:

The human person, as a spiritual totality referred to the transcendent whole, surpasses and is superior to all temporal societies…society itself and its common good are indirectly subordinated to the perfect accomplishment of the person and it’s supra-temporal aspirations as to an end of another order – an end which transcends them… With respect to the eternal destiny of the soul, society exists for each person and subordinated to it. (The Person and the Common Good, pg.61)

Nevertheless, in the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Maritain sees the body politic as a perfect or self-sufficient society. This is to be understood, however, in the temporal sense. As stated above the eternal will always supersede and transcend the temporal.

Man is supreme therefore only because he is made in the image of God. God alone is truly sovereign. Maritain argues that the state has often been perceived as being sovereign, and this has led to much misunderstanding on the role of both man and the state.

No human agency has by virtue of its own nature a right to govern men. Any right to power, and political society, is possessed by a man or a human agency insofar as he or it is in the body politic a part at the service of the common good… It would be simply nonsensical to conceive of the people as governing themselves separately from themselves and from above themselves. (Man and the State, pg.44)

The state, then, is not sovereign, but it has its rights from the body politic which means from the people and toward their common good. The state has neither natural and inalienable right to power or an absolute and transcendent character. Man, however, has natural and inalienable rights and does have a transcendent character. In no way, then, could man be inferior to the state.

We have spoken of rights, and have said that man has these, but the state, as such, does not have them (inalienable rights as a person).  What, then, is the role of the state?  Is the state to be equated with the body politic?  Is the state a personification of the people?

The historical difference between Maritain and Marx, like most modern versus ancient political differences, has its origin in the difference between Aristotle and Machiavelli (as exemplars of their respective “schools”). While the classical understanding of politics and the role of the state was to make good citizens, through virtue, the modern political school basically contends that politics is the “art of the possible.”  In other words, while the “old way” tried to make good people, the new way simply is to “give the people goods.”

In Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that:

“…the legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them, and this is the wish of every legislator; if he fails to do it well, he misses his goal. The right habituation is what makes the difference between a good political system and a bad one.”

The first thing we should emphasis is that this statement is not from the Politics, but from a treatise on ethics.  Two things, therefore, stand out.  Aristotle does not seek to prove the point just made, but states it matter-of-factly.  It was simply a given.  Tied to this is the fact that ethics and politics did, however, have a clear relation, which was one of forming good habits in people so that they may be virtuous. Aristotle would therefore build his good political body out of good people.

If we move forward to contemporary politics, we see an oft quoted passage saying “you can’t legislate morality.” But this seems to be the contrary of the ancient classical position.  Aristotle or St. Thomas may indeed ask, “If you can’t legislate morality, what are you legislating?” Granted they understood and taught that you cannot legislate heroic virtue and punish every little defect, the classical political theorists say politics more in the light of an extension of ethics than of economics (or rather, they didn’t view the relationship of ethics and economics in the distorted way we often do today: a topic for another essay.)

When we get to a political philosopher such as Locke, who would never say he was a Machiavellian, we see that the most important (or at least most emphasized) right is that of property.  While most would not necessarily say that Locke was a Machiavellian and Marxist, I do not think it too hard a stretch to see the link between the state no longer having a priority towards having “good men” but rather “the goods of men.”

Granted, we need property to survive, and Aristotle, St. Thomas, and the current papacy in social encyclicals all recognize and teach this.  But these material goods are temporal, while “who we are” is eternal.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So while it cannot be said that Aristotle was looking forward to man’s life eternal (it is debatable whether he believed in an individual immortality of the soul), the underlying metaphysical and anthropological views of Aquinas and thus Maritain are clearly different than that of Machiavelli (an unannounced atheist) and Marx.

Locke, here, seems to merely fall into the path where the connection between faith and reason had become a wreck, and we need not say that Locke was agnostic or an atheist in the way he emphasized property as the most important right when it came to politics.  This seems to simply be the result of a loss of the synthesis in medieval thought and the separation of the various fields of philosophy.  The point is that, by his time, the coherence of metaphysical, anthropological, and ethical (to include political) thought was not what it was in the great syntheses of the thinkers of the high middle ages.

We return, then, to our two primary thinkers of Marx and Maritain.  It is obvious that the difference is not one of republican and democrat, or democracy versus aristocracy or kingdom, but rather one with basic metaphysical presuppositions that are simply irreconcilable. Even those that reject metaphysical thought have a metaphysics.  Even those that think in nominalist ways take action according to the “nature” of things.

We all have a world-view, and how we think about these things can change the world itself, for better or worse.